W. Joseph Campbell

On the thin contributions of media rabble-rousers

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on January 26, 2011 at 6:39 am

The departure of the bombastic Keith Olbermann from MSNBC’s primetime lineup is no an occasion for mourning.

But it’s to be regretted.

A little.

So suggested Bret Stephens yesterday in hisWall Street Journal column about Olbermann, who abruptly left his “Countdown” show at the end of last week.

Stephens pointed out:

“The ‘Countdown’ host did away with the old-fashioned liberal snigger and replaced it with a full-frontal snarl. Put simply, Mr. Olbermann had a genuine faith in populism, something liberals more often preach than practice.”

Stephens also offered this intriguing observation:

“America does better when its political debates descend, as they so often do on (or between) MSNBC and Fox News, into honest brawls.”

He may be right, although I wish he had elaborated on that point.

The observation about “honest brawls” reminded me of the insults and brickbats that American newspaper editors of the 1890s routinely exchanged in print. These were vigorous, lusty,  often vicious exchanges — and there really was little memorable or lasting about them. Save, perhaps, for an epithet or two.

Like that of “yellow journalism.”

Wardman, father to a sneer

As I discussed in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths Defining the Legacies, the epithet emerged in late January 1897, during the failed campaign of Ervin Wardman, a New York newspaper editor, to drive a stake into the heart of the upstart journalism of William Randolph Hearst and, to a lesser extent, of Joseph Pulitzer.

Yellow journalism” took hold and spread quickly in 1897; it lives on today, as a vague but handy smear especially favored by letter-writers to newspapers.

Trouble is, the sneer “yellow journalism” is so ill-defined and flabby that it has become synonymous with journalistic sins of all kinds — exaggeration, sensationalism, hype, plagiarism, what have you.

And the trouble with media rabble-rousers like Olbermann is that their commentary often lacks wit and nuance, and tends to be superficial. It’s not deft, typically, and it’s unheard of for them to invoke media-driven myths–those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

I address and debunk 10 prominent media-driven myths in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

On his way out, in announcing his abrupt departure, Olbermann indulged in media myth. He described as “exaggerated” the rescue of Army private Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003. Hyped, maybe a bit. But the Lynch rescue, conducted by a U.S. special operations force under combat conditions, was not exaggerated.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the Defense Department’s inspector general reported in 2007 that the rescue of Lynch from an Iraqi hospital was “a valid mission” to recover a prisoner of war.

There was no evidence to suggest that the rescue “was a staged media event” even though it was videotaped, as such missions often are.

Olbermann had on other occasions invoked the media myth surrounding Edward R. Murrow, whom he sought to emulate by borrowing the legendary broadcaster’s sign-off, “Good night, and good luck.”

In November, Olbermann referred to Murrow as “a paragon of straight reporting” while claiming the American press “stood idly by” as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy pursued his communists-in-government witch-hunt.

On March 9, 1954, during a 30-minute CBS television show called See It Now, “Murrow slayed the dragon,” Olbermann declared.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, neither Murrow nor his producer, Fred Friendly, embraced the dragon-slaying interpretation. (Friendly wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”)

And it’s quite clear that the American press did not stand “idly by” as the scourge of McCarthyism emerged.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

By the time Murrow took on McCarthy in March 1954, Americans weren’t waiting for a white knight to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.

Thanks to the work of Pearson and other journalists, they already knew.


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