W. Joseph Campbell

Thanksgiving and its permissible myths

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 25, 2010 at 7:37 am

Thanksgiving can be a busy time for mild and amusing varieties of myth-busting.

There’s the notion, for example, that eating roast turkey makes you want to doze off after the feast.  Not entirely accurate, says Bon Appetit magazine. “The real reason you’re sleepy? It’s likely the stress of the holiday, the hours spent cooking, the wine and spirits–and all the fat and calories you just consumed,” the magazine says.

Then there’s disputed history about the holiday: Pilgrims may not have been the hosts of North America’s first Thanksgiving.  The editor of History News Network, Rick Shenkman, has pointed out: “Texans claim the first Thanksgiving in America actually took place in little San Elizario, a community near El Paso, in 1598 — twenty-three years before the Pilgrims’ festival” in 1621.

Thanksgiving 1621 (Library of Congress)

There’s also the matter of what the Pilgrims served at the feast in 1621. “No one knows if they had turkey, although they were used to eating turkey,” Shenkman says. “The only food we know they had for sure was deer.”

There’s the question, too, of Pilgrim garb. They didn’t dress in black, Shenkman writes, and “they did not wear those funny buckles, weird shoes, or black steeple hats.”

The myths of Thanksgiving, while undeniably engaging, tend to be on the innocuous side, rather of the genre of  Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

They can be thought of, in a way, as permissible myths–misleading, perhaps, but quaint and mostly harmless.  They’re acceptable on a grander scale of things. (Of course, purists from time to time have campaigned against mythical characters like Santa Claus. As I discuss in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, efforts arose in the late 19th century to discourage children from believing in Santa Claus on grounds that it simply was “wrong to poison the minds of the young with untruths.”)

Permissible myths, like those of Thanksgiving, are welcome and amusing elements of the holiday that often comes with too many stresses and pressures.

Permissible myths, to be sure, are quite unlike media-driven myths, the subject of my latest book, Getting It Wrong. Media-driven myths are false, dubious, improbable stories about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual. I like to think of them as the “junk food” of journalism–as tasty and appealing as pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, but not terribly nutritious or healthy.

Media myths, I write in Getting It Wrong, “are neither trivial nor innocuous. They can and do have adverse consequences.

“Notably, they 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. 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,” I note.

Indeed, media myths can serve to promote the notion of the central importance of the news media at decisive moments in history.

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a telling example.

The heroic-journalist meme–the scandal’s dominant popular narrative–maintains that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through their dogged and fearless coverage, brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the work of Woodward and Bernstein was marginal to Watergate’s outcome–to the resignation of Nixon in 1974 and the jailing of some 20 of his top aides and reelection campaign officials.

Nixon’s fall, I write, “was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces, newspaper reporting being among the least decisive.”

We can be thankful Nixon was forced from presidency because of his criminal misconduct. But it is of  little value to grant undeserved credit to the news media.

That’s hardly permissible.


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