W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Book event’

Accepting the 2010 SPJ award for Research about Journalism

In Debunking, Media myths on September 25, 2011 at 7:22 am

I was in New Orleans last night to accept the Society of Professional Journalists’  Sigma Delta Chi award for Research about Journalism, for my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

The occasion was a fine, smoothly run ceremony at a hotel near the city’s French Quarter.

Getting It Wrong, which was published last year by the University of California Press, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths — those dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Here’s a rundown about the respective myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow “to furnish the war” with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.
  2. War of Worlds: The notion that the War of Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 caused nationwide panic and mass hysteria is highly exaggerated.
  3. Murrow-McCarthy: Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; Murrow in fact was very late to take on McCarthy.
  4. Bay of Pigs: The New York Times did not suppress its reporting in the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
  5. Cronkite-Johnson: The Walter Cronkite special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment or revision of U.S. war policy. Nor did it prompt President Lyndon Johnson to declare, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
  6. Bra-burning: Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the mistaken notion that feminist demonstrators dramatically burned their bras at a Miss America protest in September 1968.
  7. Watergate: The Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That they did is a trope that knows few bounds.
  8. Crack babies: The much-feared “bio-underclass” of children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies never materialized.
  9. Jessica Lynch: The Washington Post’s erroneous reporting about Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War gave rise to several myths about her capture and rescue.
  10. Hurricane Katrina: News coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in early September 2005 was marred by wild exaggerations about extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

The “Research about Journalism” award recognizes “an investigative study about some aspect of journalism,” according to SPJ, and has to be “based on original research; either published or unpublished and … completed during the 2010 calendar year. … Judges will consider value to the profession, significance of the subject matter, thoroughness of the research, and soundness of the conclusion.”


Recent and related:

WaPo ‘played pivotal role’ in Watergate? Think again

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 24, 2011 at 7:52 am

The Wall Street Journal blog “India Real Time” indulged yesterday in the conventional but mistaken narrative of the Watergate scandal, declaring that the Washington Post “played a pivotal role in effectively bringing down then U.S. President Richard Nixon.”

Effectively brought down Nixon, eh?

Not even the Post buys into that misreading of Watergate history.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, dismissed that interpretation, declaring in 1997:

“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.”

Similarly, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, has asserted:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Such comments aren’t the manifestation of false modesty. Far from it. Rather, they represent candid observations about the peripheral role the Post played in uncovering the scandal that brought about Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Still, the notion that the Post was vital to the outcome of Watergate, that the newspaper “effectively” brought down a president, is the stuff of legend. It’s a powerful media-driven myth that offers a simplistic and misleading interpretation of the country’s greatest political scandal.

Watergate was among the media myths I discussed last night in a book talk at Kensington Row Bookshop in Kensington, MD.

I noted in my talk: “Obstruction of justice — not the Washington Post — is what cost Nixon his presidency.”

I also spoke about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and the NewYork Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth of 1961.

The “Cronkite Moment” is shorthand for the dubious notion that the on-air assessment of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite forced President Lyndon Johnson to alter policy on Vietnam.

In a special report that aired February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations would prove to be the way out of the morass.

Johnson supposedly was at the White House that night, watching Cronkite’s show. Upon hearing the “mired in stalemate” assessment, the president supposedly snapped off the television set and said to an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

As I said in my talk at the Kensington bookshop, “Acute version variability— the shifting accounts of just what was said — can be a marker of a media-driven myth.”

And so it is with the so-called “Cronkite Moment.”

Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired. The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, offering light-hearted comments at a birthday party for Gov. John Connally, who that day turned 51.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” commentary, Johnson was at the podium at Connally’s birthday party, saying:

“Today, you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

That line drew laughter from the audience of 25 people at the Kensington bookshop.

The Times-Bay of Pigs suppression myth, I said in my talk, dates almost 50 years — to April 1961, when “a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles threw themselves on the beaches of southwest Cuba in a futile attempt to turn Fidel Castro from power.”

Supposedly, the Times censored itself about invasion plans several days before the assault took place — at the request of the President John F. Kennedy.

The Times, I said, “did not censor itself. It did not suppress its reporting” about invasion preparations.

“In fact,” I added, “the Times’ accounts of preparations for the invasion were fairly detailed — and prominently displayed on the front page in the days before the Bay of Pigs assault was launched.”

The suppression myth seems to have has its origins in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 — when the Times, at Kennedy’s request, did hold off publishing a story about the deployment of Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.

On that occasion, I said in my talk, “when the prospect of a nuclear exchange seemed to be in the balance, the Times complied” with the president’s request.

“But no such request,” I added, “was made of the Times in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion of 50 years ago.”


Recent and related

Talking media myths at the alma mater

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

I gave a talk about media-driven myths yesterday on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University, where years ago I earned my undergraduate degree in journalism and history.

The talk focused on three of the media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which is dedicated to Verne E. Edwards Jr., my journalism professor at Ohio Wesleyan.

I was delighted that Edwards and his wife attended yesterday’s talk, during which I discussed the myths of Watergate, of the “Cronkite Moment,” of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

These, I said, all are well-known tales about the power of the news media that often are taught in schools, colleges, and universities. All of them are delicious stories that purport to offer lessons about the news media’s power to bring about change, for good or ill.

I described media-driven myths as I often do — as “the junk food of journalism, meaning that they’re tasty and alluring, but in the end, not terribly healthy or nutritious.”

Because it debunks prominent media myths, Getting It Wrong, I said, should not be considered “yet another media-bashing book.”

Rather, I said, Getting It Wrong is aligned with a fundamental objective of American journalism — that of getting it right.

I noted that the book is provocative and edgy — inevitably so, given that it dismantles several of the most-cherished stories in American journalism.

Among them is the notion that the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post exposed the crimes of the administration of President Richard Nixon and forced his resignation in 1974.

I noted that the Post and its reporting “was really peripheral to the outcome” of Watergate, pointing out that even senior officials at the newspaper have insisted as much over the years.

Among them was Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post during Watergate, who said on the scandal’s 25th anniversary in 1997:

“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.”

I also pointed out that Bob Woodward, one the lead reporters for the Post on Watergate, has expressed much the same sentiment, only in earthier terms. In an interview in 2004 with American Journalism Review, Woodward declared:

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

I also reviewed the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968 — that legendary occasion when the on-air assessment of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly altered American policy on the Vietnam War. At the end of a special report about Vietnam, Cronkite asserted that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” analysis, snapped off the television set and declared:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

I pointed out that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired, that the president then was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

“About the time Cronkite was intoning his ‘mired in stalemate’ commentary,” I told the audience at Ohio Wesleyan, “Johnson was at the podium at Connally’s birthday party, saying: ‘Today, you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.’

“Now that may not have been the greatest presidential joke ever told,” I said, “but it is clear that Johnson at that time wasn’t lamenting his fate, wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support” for the war in Vietnam.

Clearly, I added, the so-called “‘Cronkite Moment’ was of little importance or significance for Johnson. Especially since he didn’t even see the show when it aired.”

I described how Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” lives on despite Hearst’s denial and despite an array of reasons that point to the anecdote’s falsity.

Hearst supposedly made the vow in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba in early 1897 to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — the nasty conflict that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The tale “lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency,” I said. “It would have been absurd for  Hearst to have vowed to ‘furnish the war’ because war — the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule — was the very reasons he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Still, that anecdote and other media myths live on because they are “deliciously good stories — too good, almost, to be disbelieved,” I said. Too good, almost, to check out.

The university president, Rock Jones, introduced my talk, which was organized by Lesley Olson, general manager of the OWU bookstore, and by Cole E. Hatcher, the university’s director of media and community relations.

Two college buddies of mine, Hugh D. Pace and Tom Jenkins, also attended the talk.


Recent and related:

‘So to Speak’ about ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 18, 2011 at 6:32 am

My mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, made the Columbus Dispatch yesterday as the subject of a cleverly written column that opened this way:

“After interviewing W. Joseph Campbell, I checked the Dispatch archives to see whether I had ever committed any of the journalistic exaggerations he likes to skewer.

“I did write in 2005 that Mark Felt, the ‘Deep Throat‘ of Watergate fame, ‘rid the world of Richard Nixon.’ But I was overstating for effect, so I plead not guilty by reason of humor.”

Heh, heh. Nice touch.

The author was Joe Blundo, a veteran reporter who writes the “So to Speak” column for the “Life and Arts” section of the Dispatch.

The column was pegged to my book talk this afternoon at Ohio Wesleyan University, where I earned my undergraduate degree in journalism and history in the mid-1970s.

Blundo in his column offered overviews of some of the 10 media-driven myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong, including the notion that “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post brought down Nixon with their Watergate reporting.

“Certainly Woodward and Bernstein (and Woodward’s source Deep Throat) had a role in the drama,” Blundo wrote, “but it took investigators, Congress and the Supreme Court to ultimately force the president to resign, Campbell, 58, said by phone.”

He further quoted me as saying that against the backdrop of subpoena-wielding authorities who dug into the crimes of Watergate, “the contributions of The Washington Post really recede into near insignificance.”

The newspaper’s contributions weren’t decisive, that’s for sure. Even officials at the Post have attempted over the years to distance the newspaper from the popular narrative that its reporting forced Nixon to resign.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, was among the senior figures at the  Post who dismissed that mediacentric link. She said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“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.”

Also that year, Ben Bradlee,the executive editor at the Post during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Blundo also quoted me about some of the reasons media-driven myths are so tenacious and appealing — that they place the news media decisively at the center of important events and that they offer simplistic explanations for complex issues and developments of the past.

“Yet the myths won’t die,” he wrote.

I’m afraid he’s right. Media myths die hard, if they die at all.

The only way to counter them is to call them out, to pound away at them when they appear in the news media. Even then, utter and thorough debunking is rare. These stories, after all, often are too good not to be true.

And often too good to check out.


Recent and related:

Saturday at Newseum: Telling the back story to ‘Yes, Virginia’

In 1897, Media myths, New York Sun, Newspapers, Year studies on December 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I’ll be discussing American journalism’s best-known, most-reprinted editorial at a program tomorrow afternoon at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

The editorial is, of course, the timeless tribute to childhood and the Christmas spirit that ran 113 years ago in the old New York Sun beneath the headline, “Is There A Santa Claus?”

I’ll be speaking about the back story to the classic editorial at 3:30 p.m. in the Newseum’s Knight studio, near the close of what is billed as “‘Yes, Virginia,’ Family Day.” The essay often is referred to as “Yes, Virginia,” owing to its most famous passage–“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

As I note in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the editorial was rather obscure and inconspicuous in its first appearance.  “Is There A Santa Claus?” was published in the third of three columns of tightly packed commentaries on topics that ranged from the ambiguities in Connecticut’s election law to the features of the chainless bicycle anticipated in 1898.

The editorial’s timing was odd and incongruous, too. “Is There A Santa Claus?” first appeared in the Sun on September 21, 1897–more than three months before Christmas.

As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism, the best explanation for the puzzling timing “lies in the excited speculation of a little girl who, after celebrating her birthday in mid-summer, began to wonder about the gifts she would receive at Christmas.”

The little girl was Virginia O’Hanlon who, in her excited speculation, wrote to the Sun, saying:

“Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. … Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”

Virginia O'Hanlon

As she recalled years later, the letter was sent soon after her 8th birthday in July 1897. But the editorial reply in the Sun didn’t appear until more than two months had passed.

“After writing to the Sun,” she told an audience in 1959, “I looked every day for the simple answer I expected. When it didn’t appear, I got disappointed and forgot about it.”

Apparently, the Sun had misplaced or overlooked her letter. It eventually turned up on the desk of Edward P. Mitchell, the editorial page editor, who asked Francis P. Church to craft a reply.

Years later, Mitchell wrote that Church, a retiring, taciturn journalist, “bristled and pooh-poohed” at the request but finally “took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk” to write.

It took Church less than a day to draft the editorial that would ensure him enduring posthumous fame. (His authorship wasn’t disclosed by the Sun until shortly after his death in 1906.)

“Virginia,” Church wrote in the editorial, “your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”

After ruminating about the dimensions of human imagination, Church opened a new paragraph and wrote the editorial’s most memorable passages:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”

It sometimes is claimed that “Is There A Santa Claus?” was an instant sensation. In fact, it attracted no immediate attention. As I write in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“Although it was published at a time when newspaper editors routinely commented on—and often disparaged—the work and content of their rivals, the oddly timed editorial prompted no comment from the Sun’s rivals in New York City.”

But “readers noted it and found it memorable,” I add. “In untold numbers over the years, readers asked the Sun to reprint the essay.” While it took years, the newspaper grudgingly acquiesced.

From 1924 until the newspaper’s last Christmas before folding in 1950, “Is There A Santa Claus?” was the lead editorial in the Sun on December 23 or 24.

“Ultimately,” I note, “the newspaper gave in—tacitly acknowledging that editors are not always as perceptive as their readers in identifying journalism of significance and lasting value.”


Recent and related:

Mythbusting at the Smithsonian

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

A fine crowd was on hand last night for my book talk at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center about media-driven myths.

The talk was part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program, which organized the event superbly well.

During the talk, I reviewed three of the 10 media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong: the heroic-journalist myth that has become the most popular narrative of the Watergate scandal; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize the futility of the war effort in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 that purportedly pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

I also offered a few suggestions about identifying and sidestepping media myths, suggestions that included being skeptical about turns of phrase that just sound too neat and tidy–almost too good to be true. Another bit of advice was to apply logic and healthy skepticism to extravagant claims about the news media and their presumed influence.

Questions and comments from the audience of 170 or so people were especially thoughtful.

One comment was about the notion the famous New York City blackout in November 1965 was followed nine months later by an uptick in births–a linkage suggested in reports by the New York Times in August 1966. The Times quoted a sociologist as saying then:

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other.”

Though not addressed in Getting It Wrong, it is an intriguing topic, one that could be considered in a sequel about media myths, I said.

I added that the blackout tale sounded a lot like more recent speculation that the major snowstorms along the East Coast in December 2009 and February 2010 would give rise to an increase in live births nine months later. A blizzard baby boom, as it were.

That correlation may be mythical, though.

Still, the notion there is such a linkage isn’t entirely far-fetched. It rests on the cusp of plausibility–as do many media myths addressed in Getting It Wrong, I said.

I also noted during the Q-and-A session that media myths that have appeal across the political spectrum can be especially tenacious and enduring. They are tales, I said, that offer something for everyone.

The “crack baby” scare of the late 1980s and 1990s is an example of a media-driven narrative that offered something for everyone.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The crack baby was a rare social issue that had appeal across the political spectrum—appeal that made the phenomenon especially powerful, compelling, notable, and tenacious. For conservatives, the specter of crack babies underscored the importance of imposing stiff penalties in the country’s war on drugs. And penalties were stiffened for crack possession during the second half of the 1980s. For liberals, meanwhile, crack babies represented an opportunity to press for costly assistance programs aimed at helping crack users and their children.”

“Crack babies” were children born to women who had taken cocaine during pregnancy, and many news reports and commentaries predicted an epidemic of crack-damaged misfits.

Among the more overheated predictions was that of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote in 1989:

“The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.”

Krauthammer likened the crack-induced “bio-underclass” to a “biologically determined underclass of the underclass.”

But it never happened.

The crack baby phenomenon turned out to be the epidemic that wasn’t, the product of over-the-top, anecdote-driven news reporting.


Recent and related:

Inaugurating the Parker-Qualls lecture

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on November 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I inaugurated last night the Parker-Qualls lecture in communications at the University of North Alabama with an audience of some 300 students, faculty, staff, administrators, and townspeople in attendance.

My talk centered on three of the 10 prominent media-driven myths debunked in  my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I discussed the heroic-journalist myth that has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, which ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize the futility of the war effort in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that reputedly pitched Americans into panic and mass hysteria in 1938.

During the Q-and-A that followed my presentation, I was asked how media audiences can better identify potential media-driven myths, those dubious stories about or by the news media that masquerade as factual. It’s a fine question, with no easy answer.

I advised being wary about media-related stories that just sound too neat and too tidy. The famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”–is a telling example, I said. The quote just seems too good, too perfect to be true.  It deftly captures Hearst as war-monger, but it’s supported by almost no evidence. It’s almost certainly apocryphal.

Media audiences also should apply logic and healthy skepticism to stories about or by the news media and their power, I said, citing The War of the Worlds dramatization as an example. It it really plausible that a radio show–even one as  clever and imaginative as that–really could send tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets in sheer panic and hysteria? It doesn’t seem logical to me.

I also recommended consulting online sources: Some, like Media Myth Alert, are devoted to mythbusting. Even a simple Google search will readily turn skeptical accounts of popular, mediacentric stories.

I also was asked whether there were candidate-media myths that proved to true. Another good question and I couldn’t recall any immediately.

Then I remembered having had suspicions about Joe Namath’s guarantee that the New York Jets would defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. That Namath guaranteed victory sounded to me almost too neat and tidy to be true.  (I privately congratulated myself on remembering being suspicious of that quote,  as it enabled me to mention a football legend who starred at the University of Alabama, a team much followed in Northern Alabama.)

Anyway, it turned out that Namath had indeed made such a guarantee–which I quickly determined in a check of a database of historical newspapers. So that was a candidate myth that proved to be true.

I also was asked what prompted me to write Getting It Wrong. In some ways, I replied, the book built upon previous research. I mentioned my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I addressed the myth of Hearst’s famous vow.

I noted that I returned to that topic in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, offering additional detail about how the often-retold tale about Hearst’s vow took hold and was diffused.

Another inspiration for the book stemmed from my classes at American University. I’ve often included in my courses references to the “Cronkite Moment,” I noted for example, adding that the more I read about and thought about such anecdotes, the more dubious they seemed to be.

And under scrutiny–in researching them–they dissolved as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

My hosts at the University of North Alabama have been Greg Pitts, chair of the department of communications, and Jim R. Martin, a journalism historian and editor of the scholarly journal American Journalism.


Recent and related:

Sales of ‘Getting It Wrong’ brisk at NPC’s Book Fair

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Year studies on November 10, 2010 at 5:43 pm

The National  Press Club’s Book Fair last night was quite a success.

Getting It Wrong was among some 90 titles chosen for the book fair, and sales of the book were gratifyingly brisk. I didn’t keep count, but easily two dozen copies were sold during the three-hour event. Or more.

A volunteer at the checkout counter stopped by as the program was winding down to ask about the book. She said she had seen a lot of people buying it. And she decided to buy a copy, too.

The venue was the Press Club’s ballroom and it was jammed with book-buyers. I thought the crowd was larger than that of four years ago, when I was chosen to attend the book fair to sell copies of The Year The Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

I shared a display table this year with Gayle Haggard, the charming author of Why I Stayed, who traveled from Colorado for the book fair. We were across an aisle from Captain Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, who safely landed a stricken USAirways jet on the Hudson River early last year.

Sullenberger was quite the draw, and he left about an hour early, after selling the available copies of his book,  Highest Duty.

I received only one, mild challenge about Getting It Wrong. A small lady who must be in her 70s, thumbed through the book and announced that she disagreed with my take on Edward R. Murrow’s famous television report about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his witch-hunting ways.

Murrow “broke the bubble” on the McCarthy scourge, she told me as she returned the book to the stack on the table. I was tempted to point out that Murrow was very late in confronting McCarthy, doing so only after a number of other journalists had taken on the senator. I was tempted as well to note that Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, both dismissed the view that Murrow’s 1954 program was decisive in McCarthy’s fall.

But I let it pass.

Another visitor to the table asked whether Getting It Wrong has much attracted from criticism from journalists who find it dismaying that the book busts some of American journalism’s best-known stories.

Some people have resisted giving up on these stories, I replied. But more often the reaction has been one of some surprise that these tales were myths. Others have said they had rather suspected these tales were too good to be true, I added.

During the pre-event reception for authors and guests, I spoke for a while with James Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and more recently of Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse. Swanson said his next project is a fiction-thriller series. I also chatted with Maurine Beasley, a journalism historian at the University of Maryland who is one of my favorite scholars. Her latest book is Eleanor Roosevelt: Transformative First Lady.

I’m in Florence, Alabama, today, to deliver the first Parker-Qualls Lecture in Communications at the University of North Alabama. It’s a program that I’m very honored to inaugurate.

I also will speak with several classes at UNA on media theory, journalism ethics, and political communication.


Recent and related:

‘Getting It Wrong’ among 90 titles at NPC Book Fair

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Year studies on November 8, 2010 at 11:55 am

I will be among more than 90 authors signing and selling their recent books tomorrow evening at the annual National Press Club Book Fair and Authors’ Night.

My latest book, Getting It Wrong, will be among the titles at the Press Club event.

The book fair this year brings together a variety of authors, including one of my favorite journalism historians, Maurine Beasley of the University of Maryland; Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening To News, and Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a stricken passenger airliner on the Hudson River in January 2009.

The Book Fair is a fine occasion. I attended the event in 2006 and had a great time. My book at that event was The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

Getting It Wrong, which came out during the summer, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. These are stories about and/or by the news media that widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

I liken them to the “junk food” of journalism–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not terribly healthy or nutritious.

The myths debunked in Getting It Wrong include some of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself, including:

“Because it takes on some of the most treasured stories in American journalism,” I write in the introduction to Getting It Wrong, the book “is a work with a provocative edge. It could not be otherwise.”

I further write that Getting It Wrong “aligns itself with a central objective of newsgathering—that of seeking to get it right, of setting straight the record by offering searching reappraisals of some of the best-known stories journalism tells about itself.

“Given that truth-seeking is such a widely shared and animating value in American journalism,” I add, “it is a bit odd that so little effort has been made over the years to revisit, scrutinize, and verify these stories. But then, journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

I point out that media myths take hold for a variety of reasons: Because they delicious stories that are almost too good not to be true; because they are reductive in offering simplistic interpretations of complex historical events, and because they are self-flattering in that they place journalists at the decisive center of important developments.

The Book Fair opens at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free for members, and $5 for non-members.


Recent and related:

SRO for ‘Getting It Wrong’ talk at UMd

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 5, 2010 at 11:50 am

A terrific audience of journalism students and faculty turned out last night for my talk at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism.

It was standing-room-only at the Knight Hall conference room, where I discussed several chapters in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

I walked through the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that reputedly shifted U.S. public opinion about the war in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938 that supposedly panicked listeners across the United States.

During the Q-and-A period that followed, I touched on the famous vow to “furnish the war” attributed to William Randolph Hearst and on the erroneously reported battlefield heroics of Private Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War.

An intriguing question from the audience was what message should students take away from a book that identifies as media-driven myths some of the best-known stories in American journalism. The implication was that mythbusting may undercut the regard would-be journalists have for the profession.

I replied by saying that I  don’t consider Getting It Wrong a media-bashing book: Such books are many on the market as it is.

Rather, I said, the mythbusting in Getting It Wrong is aligned with the fundamental objective of American journalism. And that is to get it right, to offer an account that is as accurate as possible.

And it does journalism little good to indulge in tales such as the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate or the mythical “Cronkite Moment” that offer misleading interpretations about the news media and their power.

Debunking media myths, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “can help to place media influence in more coherent context.”

Nor should we worry about students being disappointed that well-known and even cherished stories about American journalism have been exposed as mythical. It shouldn’t be disheartening to learn the news media aren’t necessarily the powerful forces they are often believed to be.

Students can handle it.

Not only that, but mythbusting can offer them useful lessons in the importance of applying skepticism and a critical eye to dominant narratives and received wisdom of American journalism.

Indeed, Professor John Kirch, host and organizer of my talk at Maryland, does just that in presenting these and other tales in his journalism classes. Doing so can become a revealing exercise in critical thinking.

I also was asked about candidate-myths for a prospective sequel to Getting It Wrong.

A strong candidate for such a book, I said, is the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.

The myth has it that people who watched the debate on television thought that Senator John F. Kennedy won; those who listened on radio thought Vice President Richard Nixon had the better of the exchanges.

The notion of listener-viewer-disagreement was long ago debunked by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in Central States Speech Journal. They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement typically were anecdotal and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative from which to make confident judgments.

But the myth is a hardy one, I noted, and it resurfaced in late September, at the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon encounter.

Among the 80 or so people in attendance last night was Jamie McIntyre, former Pentagon correspondent for CNN. Afterward, we compared notes about the misreported Lynch case, which the Washington Post propelled into the public domain with a botched, front-page story in early April 2003.

Recent and related:

%d bloggers like this: