W. Joseph Campbell

Sniffing out media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 17, 2010 at 8:19 am

I had a fine interview about Getting It Wrong the other day with Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times, the fruits of which appear in his column today.

He writes that Getting It Wrong, my latest book, “picks apart some of journalism’s key moments, from the notion that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s White House (action by the FBI, U.S. Congress and Supreme Court actually did that), to the myth of babies born to crack-addicted moms swamping the country and the idea that CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite turned public opinion on the Vietnam War with a single critical broadcast (public opinion had been souring on the war for months).”

Deggans cleverly structured the column as a series of “clues to spot myths in the making.”

Tip-offs mentioned in his column are:

  • Myths can seem too good to be true.
  • Myths tend to support the notion of media power.
  • Myths simplify complex issues and historical events.

Those factors certainly do characterize media-driven myths, which are prominent stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Media myths can be thought of as the junk food of journalism–tasty and alluring, perhaps, but not terribly nutritious or healthy.

The media myths addressed and debunked in Getting It Wrong include some of American journalism’s best-known stories. “Most of them are savory tales,” I write in the book. “And at least some of them seem almost too good to be false.”

Media myths, I point out in Getting It Wrong, do “tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society, conferring on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.”

They are media-centric. Self-flattering.

As I further write in Getting It Wrong:

“Media myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do and tend to extend credit where credit is not entirely due.”

What I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is an example of such hero-seeking.

The myth has it that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

“In reality,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the Post and other news organizations were marginal factors in unraveling the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s fall was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces, newspaper reporting being among the least decisive.”

And yet the Watergate myth lives on, as an example of the news media exerting power in an effective and beneficial manner.

Media myths also endure, I write, because they tend to be reductive. That is,  they simplify, they “offer unambiguous, easily remembered explanations about complex historic events.”

It is, after all, far easier to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of unraveling Watergate than it is to grapple with and understand the sprawling complexity of the scandal.

Media myths also invite indulgence in the “golden age fallacy,” a flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring—the time, say, of Woodward and Bernstein.

Interestingly, Woodward has scoffed at the notion that he and Bernstein took down Nixon. Woodward said in an interview in 2005:

“To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

To the list of tip-offs that Deggans discusses, I would add: “Myths often fail the sniff test.” Tales that are quite neat and tidy do tend to emit a whiff of phoniness.

Pithy quotes such as William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain fail the sniff test. They invite suspicion because they seem almost too perfect, too neat and tidy.

Hearst’s famous vow is examined in Chapter One in Getting It Wrong.

In closing, I note another newspaper reference to Getting It Wrong.

Leo Morris, editorial page editor at the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, wrote the other day that he the book “sounded so intriguing” that he was prompted to download its Kindle edition.

Morris’ brief piece carried the headline: “Journalism’s mythtakes.”

Clever. “Mythtakes.” I like it.


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