W. Joseph Campbell

Media myths send ‘misleading’ message of media power

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 13, 2010 at 9:42 am

In this, the second of three installments drawn from Newsbusters‘ lengthy interview about Getting It Wrong, I discuss why it’s vital to debunk media-driven myths, those dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

This installment also includes a discussion about the flawed and over-the-top news coverage of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005.

The Newsbusters interview was conducted by Lachlan Markay, who described Getting It Wrong as “exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed.”

The third and final excerpt from the interview will be posted tomorrow at Media Myth Alert . The interview transcript is accessible here.

NEWSBUSTERS: So why, personally, do you feel that–you obviously feel it’s very important that these myths be exposed as myths. What’s the damage that these myths do if they carry on unquestioned?

CAMPBELL: I think one of the drawbacks [of media-driven myths] is that they … suggest power that the news media typically do not have. Media power in my view tends to be episodic, tends to be situational, nuanced, and it’s typically trumped by other forces and other factors. Government power, police power tend to overwhelm media power on an average basis in most circumstances.

But these stories–about [Walter] Cronkite, about [Edward] Murrow, about Watergate, about [William Randolph] Hearst, and some of the others in the book–typically send a message that the media have great power, to do good or to do harm.

They can start a war, they can end a war, they can alter the political landscape, they can even bring down a president–they’re that powerful. That’s absolutely a misleading message. It’s not how media power is applied or exerted, and that’s an important reason to debunk these myths.

There’s also some inherent importance too in trying to set the record straight to the extent you can. And in that regard, the book is aligned with the fundamental objective of journalism as practiced in this country, of getting it right, getting the story correct. …

NB: And some of the–the Katrina example comes to mind–some of the myths actually have to do with the media–not just a flawed or misleading understanding of events, but a completely fabricated, and made up and very destructive events sometimes. And I say Katrina because there were all these reports of gunfire in New Orleans, of dead bodies being piled up in the Superdome, none of which was true.

CAMPBELL: That’s right. …  Not only that, but the collective sense that those kinds of media reports gave about New Orleans–the place had just collapsed, the city and its people had collapsed into this sort of apocalyptic, Mad Max-like, nightmarish scene–and it served to besmirch the city and its citizens at the time of their direst need.

And that, I think, is just absolutely reprehensible. And that’s the message that we were getting [from the coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in early September 2005]. …

To the credit of the news media, they did go back –many of them, many of these news organizations–and took a look at how they got it wrong. But that tended to be a one-off kind of thing, and placed … inside the papers.

Broadcast media didn’t do much of this at all. … So even to this day, five years on, I still don’t believe the news media have taken full measure of the mistakes they made in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

The tendency is still to blame government–local, state, and certainly federal government–for an inept response. But the story was deeper than that, and it was more complex than that, and that’s the part that the news media got wrong.

NB: And of course one of the consequences of that misreporting was that, as you mention, the federal government especially bore a lot of the blame for what was happening there. And then you also have Murrow taking down perhaps the most notorious cold warrior in our country’s history, you have Cronkite as the standard-bearer for the left’s main cause during the 1960s, you have Woodward and Bernstein taking down a Republican president. Are there political factors at work here, do you think?

CAMPBELL: I think that some of the more enduring myths are those that have appeal across the political spectrum.

The Cronkite moment is one of them–it appeals because this is, for folks on the right, this is a real clear-cut example of how “the news media screwed us in Vietnam, and how they prevented us from winning the war there.” And on the left it’s an example of telling truth to power, and how Walter Cronkite was able to pierce … the nonsense, and make it clear to the Johnson administration that the policy in Vietnam was bankrupt.

Something for everyone.

End of part two

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