W. Joseph Campbell

Why they get it wrong

In Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 3, 2011 at 6:49 am

It’s striking how several well-known journalists and news outlets have indulged over last six months in media-driven myths, those dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The lineup of myth-indulgers is impressive and, among others, includes:

  • Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, who rubbed shoulders with the Bay of Pigs suppression myth in a column in the Times in January. The suppression myth holds that at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, the Times killed or emasculated its report about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. That tale is unfounded, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.
  • Mother Jones magazine which, in its May/June cover story by Rick Perlstein, offered up a rare two-fer — two media myths discussed in a single article. One of the myths was the hoary and surely apocryphal tale about William Randolph Hearst and his reputed vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. The other was about the so-called the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, in which Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam was so powerful as to alter U.S. policy.
  • Keith Olbermann, the acerbic cable television commentator who, as he quit his prime-time Countdown show in January, referred to the  “exaggerated rescue” of Army private Jessica Lynch in the early days of the Iraq War. Such claims, raised as long ago as 2003, were unsubstantiated by an inquiry of the Defense Department’s inspector general who found the rescue operation was found to have been “a valid mission” to recover Lynch, a prisoner of war, “under combat conditions.”

What accounts for such lapses by prominent journalists and their outlets? Why do these and other media-driven myths often find their way into news reports and commentaries?

Some media myths are just too good not to be true; they almost are too good to take time to check out. The tale about Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” certainly falls into this category. It shouldn’t be at all difficult to locate references to the dubious character of the anecdote, which has been the subject of repeated debunking over the years.

Likewise, it can be far easier to invoke a media myths that to commit to the tedium of research and legwork. Media myths are convenient, readily at hand. Poking into their details takes time, and a willingness to challenge what are accepted as consensus narratives.

As I noted in discussing Keller’s column that invoked the Bay of Pigs suppression myth:

“Had Keller consulted the newspaper’s database of reporting about the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he would have found that the Times reported in detail, if not always accurately, about the preparations to infiltrate a U.S.-trained brigade of Cuban exiles in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro.”

Similarly, some media myths (such as the illusory “Cronkite Moment“) may be too ingrained, too dearly held by journalists, ever to be uprooted or thoroughly repudiated.

Unlearning such tales is no small challenge, after all. The conundrum of unlearning was addressed a few months ago in a Wall Street Journal column, which noted:

“For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding.”

Media myths also can be convenient means of scoring political points. The two-fer in Mother Jones magazine, for example, were presented as part of a sneering attack about “fact-free” Republicans.

Moreover, media myths — the most prominent of them, anyway — resonate in contemporary contexts.

History, it has been said, is “what we decide to remember,” and journalism history is not an exception. Recalling and celebrating the memory of Cronkite’s supposedly telling truth to power about Vietnam — or of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s bringing down a corrupt presidency — is to offer reassurance to contemporary journalists at a time of confusion and upheaval in their field.

Deciding to remember such mythical tales is understandable if not justifiable, given that those tales bring solace and reassurance amid sweeping uncertainty.


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