W. Joseph Campbell

Inaugurating the Parker-Qualls lecture

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on November 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I inaugurated last night the Parker-Qualls lecture in communications at the University of North Alabama with an audience of some 300 students, faculty, staff, administrators, and townspeople in attendance.

My talk centered on three of the 10 prominent media-driven myths debunked in  my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I discussed the heroic-journalist myth that has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, which ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize the futility of the war effort in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that reputedly pitched Americans into panic and mass hysteria in 1938.

During the Q-and-A that followed my presentation, I was asked how media audiences can better identify potential media-driven myths, those dubious stories about or by the news media that masquerade as factual. It’s a fine question, with no easy answer.

I advised being wary about media-related stories that just sound too neat and too tidy. The famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”–is a telling example, I said. The quote just seems too good, too perfect to be true.  It deftly captures Hearst as war-monger, but it’s supported by almost no evidence. It’s almost certainly apocryphal.

Media audiences also should apply logic and healthy skepticism to stories about or by the news media and their power, I said, citing The War of the Worlds dramatization as an example. It it really plausible that a radio show–even one as  clever and imaginative as that–really could send tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets in sheer panic and hysteria? It doesn’t seem logical to me.

I also recommended consulting online sources: Some, like Media Myth Alert, are devoted to mythbusting. Even a simple Google search will readily turn skeptical accounts of popular, mediacentric stories.

I also was asked whether there were candidate-media myths that proved to true. Another good question and I couldn’t recall any immediately.

Then I remembered having had suspicions about Joe Namath’s guarantee that the New York Jets would defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. That Namath guaranteed victory sounded to me almost too neat and tidy to be true.  (I privately congratulated myself on remembering being suspicious of that quote,  as it enabled me to mention a football legend who starred at the University of Alabama, a team much followed in Northern Alabama.)

Anyway, it turned out that Namath had indeed made such a guarantee–which I quickly determined in a check of a database of historical newspapers. So that was a candidate myth that proved to be true.

I also was asked what prompted me to write Getting It Wrong. In some ways, I replied, the book built upon previous research. I mentioned my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I addressed the myth of Hearst’s famous vow.

I noted that I returned to that topic in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, offering additional detail about how the often-retold tale about Hearst’s vow took hold and was diffused.

Another inspiration for the book stemmed from my classes at American University. I’ve often included in my courses references to the “Cronkite Moment,” I noted for example, adding that the more I read about and thought about such anecdotes, the more dubious they seemed to be.

And under scrutiny–in researching them–they dissolved as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

My hosts at the University of North Alabama have been Greg Pitts, chair of the department of communications, and Jim R. Martin, a journalism historian and editor of the scholarly journal American Journalism.


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