W. Joseph Campbell

Talking media myths on ‘Community Voices’

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm

The exaggerated tales of Watergate, Hurricane Katrina, and crack babies were the principal media myths I discussed the other day in an interview on KPCW Radio in Utah.

The interview focused on those chapters of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, and was conducted by Larry Warren and Linda Gorton on their  “Community Voices” show.

I noted early in the interview that the “animating force” in American journalism is to get the story right and that Getting It Wrong “is associated with that ethos of truth-telling, of seeking to get the story right.”

The interviewers quickly turned to Watergate, asking whether the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post was what indeed drove President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.

“That is the dominant narrative of Watergate,” I pointed out, adding that’s also a very simplistic explanation for rolling up what was a complex scandal.

“To unravel the complexity and the intricacy of Watergate,” I said, “took all kinds of forces, most of them subpoena-wielding — federal prosecutors, the FBI, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, ultimately Supreme Court, which forced Richard Nixon to surrender the evidence which clearly showed that he had conspired with top aides to try to cover up the investigation into the Watergate break-in, the signal crime of the scandal.

“Against that backdrop, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein fade into relative insignificance,” I said.

Another reason that Watergate’s dominant narrative focuses so squarely on Woodward, Bernstein, and the Washington Post is, I said, the cinematic version of the reporters’ book, All the President’s Men.

It surely is the most-watched movie ever made about Watergate, and “it really does focus,” I noted, “on the work of Woodward and Bernstein to the exclusion” of the forces and factors that were truly decisive in bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

“I think we know,” Warren interjected, “that you’re not going to be invited to Mr. Woodward’s for dinner anytime soon.”

“You know,” I replied, Woodward “has said something to the effect of, ‘to say the press brought down Richard Nixon is total nonsense.’ He used earthier terms to make that point.”

The reference to Woodward’s comment in an interview in 2004 with American Journalism Review in which he asserted:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

I also discussed the notion that news coverage of Hurricane Katrina was superlative, that it supposedly “demonstrated the value and importance of traditional news media, both print and broadcast, at a time of disaster. And Hurricane Katrina was no small storm. It was no [Hurricane] Irene, that’s for sure.”

But I added:

“The coverage of Hurricane Katrina was no high heroic moment in American journalism because, on many important elements of that story, the news media got it badly wrong.”

The hurricane’s death toll was “wildly exaggerated,” I noted, adding that the “apocalyptic reports that the news media put out in the days after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall proved to be largely untrue.

“There were no snipers firing at medical personnel, no snipers firing at [rescue] helicopters. No bodies stacked up like cordwood, no children with their throats slashed. No roving gangs preying on tourists. No sharks plying the flood waters of New Orleans.

“All these reports were out there,” I said, but in the end “none of them was verified or substantiated.”

The erroneous and exaggerated reports of violence in post-Katrina New Orleans in some cases had the effect of delaying the arrival and delivery of aid to the storm-stricken city, I noted.

The social disaster that the news media anticipated in the purported — and widely misreported — “crack baby” epidemic never took place, I pointed out.

More than one news commentator, I said, described as a “bio-underclass” the generation that would come of age after having been exposed to crack cocaine in the womb. These children supposedly would be so mentally and physically deformed as to be forever dependent on the state.

“The news media were spectacularly wrong about the crack baby epidemic,” I said, noting that news reports in the late 1980s and early 1990s “pushed very hard on preliminary evidence suggesting there was a powerful linkage between taking crack during pregnancy and subsequent deformities in children.”

To their discredit, I added, the news media never went back in a sustained and systematic way to undertake to dismantle the crack-baby myth — “even after consensus had taken hold among scientists and biomedical researchers that [prenatal] exposure to crack was not this destructive force that preliminary research had suggested.”


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