W. Joseph Campbell

Media myths: Prominent cases of ‘fake news’ masquerading as fact

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2016 at 7:46 pm

The mainstream media’s recent panic about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore a critical element: The media themselves often have been purveyors of bogus stories.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-3-53-56-pm“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are examined in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently by University of California Press.

The book addresses and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated.

Media myths can be thought of as prominent cases of “fake news” or shoddy interpretation that have masqueraded as fact for years. Or decades.

Take, for example, the often-told tale that television viewers and radio listeners had sharply different impressions about who won the first-ever televised debate in September 1960 between major party candidates. The media myth is that John F. Kennedy looked so cool and collected that TV audiences gave him the nod, but that Richard Nixon was the winner among radio listeners.

The tale of viewer-listener disagreement has circulated for years and is dismantled in one of three new chapters in the second edition of Getting It Wrong. “Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation,” I write, “it is a robust trope that emerged within months of the first of four Kennedy-Nixon debates [in 1960] and is often invoked decades later as conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.”

Viewer-listener disagreement is a dubious bit of political lore that’s frequently cited by mainstream media, especially in the runup to  national elections. As with many media myths, I point out in the book, “the notion of viewer-listener disagreement rests more on assertion than persuasive evidence.”

What little polling data exist about the debate’s radio listeners are simply too sparse, too unstable, and too imprecise to support any broad conclusions about their views of the debate winner.

Moreover, the extensive debate coverage in major U.S. newspapers lends no support to the claim of viewer-listener disagreement, either.

Had dramatic and widespread differences characterized the reactions of TV and radio audiences, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to detect and report about such clashing perceptions — especially in the days immediately after the Kennedy-Nixon encounter when curiosity about the debate, its novelty, and its impact ran high.

But none of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in researching the chapter about the debate made specific reference to the presumptive phenomenon of listener-viewer disagreement: Leading American newspapers contained nothing in the debate’s immediate aftermath that suggested pervasive differences in how televisions viewers and radio listeners reacted to the landmark debate, I note.

The myth of viewer-listener disagreement appears to have originated in a passage in The Making of the President, 1960, an award-winning book about the campaign written by journalist Theodore White.

Getting It Wrong punctures other fake tales, including:

  • The purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain, supposedly contained in a telegraphic exchange with Frederic Remington, an artist on assignment in Cuba in 1897 for Hearst’s New York Journal. The war-mongering vow is well-known in American journalism, but is supported by no compelling evidence or documentation. The telegrams have never turned up and Hearst denied sending such a message. But because it supposedly captures Hearst’s duplicitous ways so well, the “furnish the war” anecdote lives on, despite having been thoroughly debunked.
  • The radio adaptation in October 1938 of The War of The Worlds was supposedly so dramatic and sounded so convincing that tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets in panic and mass hysteria, believing that Earth was under an invasion from Mars. But evidence is scant at best that the radio program caused such powerful effects. If panic had spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was linked to the show.
    This tale, too, lives on, resistant to debunking.
  • The supposed battlefield heroics of PFC Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who, the Washington Post said, fought Lynch_headline_Postfiercely in the ambush of her unit during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003. Lynch, the Post claimed, was shot and stabbed, but kept firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition and was taken prisoner. The Post’s electrifying, front-page story about Lynch’s derring-do carried the headline “‘She was fighting to the death'” and was picked up and amplified by news organizations around the world.
    But the story soon was found to be wrong in all important respects: Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush (her weapon had jammed) and she was neither shot nor stabbed. The heroics attributed to her were an apparent case of mistaken identity that likely stemmed from a translation error. The Post, however, never has adequately explained how it got it so badly wrong about Jessica Lynch. Or who its sources were.

The Post figures in an even more prominent media myth — namely that the reporting of two of its reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, uncovered the Watergate scandal and exposed the wrongdoing that brought down Nixon’s presidency in 1974. This simplistic, easy-to-remember yet misleading version of Watergate has become the scandal’s dominant narrative.

But clearly, that’s not how Watergate was uncovered. Unspooling the scandal was the work of subpoena-wielding agencies and actors, including federal special prosecutors, congressional committees, the FBI, and ultimately the Supreme Court.

Even then, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal if not for the secret audio tapes he had made of conversations at the White House. The tapes clearly revealed his guilty role in approving a cover-up of Watergate’s seminal crime — the burglary in June 1972 of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

But the media myth of Watergate — the spurious interpretation about how the scandal was exposed — lives on. And is not infrequently repeated by news organizations, including rivals of the Post.

The tale endures even though officials at the Post have periodically over the years pointedly rejected the notion. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said:

“Sometimes, people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham was right. But the constitutional-processes interpretation of Watergate is far less dramatic, and far more intricate, than the narrative about two ambitious journalists and their earnest reporting.


A version of this essay first appeared
at the University of California Press blog

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