W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Book event’

Discussing ‘Getting It Wrong’ at a special place

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

There was a fine turnout today for my book talk at the Library of Congress, the splendid institution where I have done a great deal of research over the past 12 years or so.

The Library is a special place, and more than 120 people were there as I reviewed three of the 10 media-driven myths that are addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Two of the myths discussed possess a strong Washington, D.C., connections; the third was timely in a seasonal, late-October sort of way. Specifically, I discussed:

  • The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: That is, the notion that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
  • The so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968: The belief President Lyndon Johnson realized the Vietnam Was was unwinnable following a dire, on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Southeast Asia.
  • The War of the Worlds radio dramatization: The widely held view that Orson Welles’ clever adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a science fiction thriller about a deadly Martian invasion of Earth, touched widespread panic and mass hysteria on Halloween Even 1938.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

The anniversary of Welles’ War of Worlds broadcast is Saturday.

In my talk at the Library of Congress, I pointed out how improbable it was that a radio show–even one as inspired as Welles’ adaptation–could have had the effect of sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of listeners into the streets in panic and hysteria.

There were many internal clues for listeners signaling that the show was just that–a radio show.

It aired Sundays, from 8-9 p.m., Eastern time, on CBS–in the usual time slot for Welles’ program, which he called the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles was the show’s star and director, and his distinctive voice would have been familiar to many listeners that long ago October night.

What’s more, events described in the show moved far too rapidly to be plausible or believable. In less than 30 minutes, for example, the Martians blasted off from their planet, traveled millions of miles to Earth, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, and began a destructive march on New York City.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Claims that the broadcast fomented mass panic and hysteria were dramatically overstated” by daily newspapers the following day.

Close reading of the contemporaneous newspaper accounts made it clear that they based their characterizations of widespread turmoil on relatively small numbers of anecdotal cases of people who were frightened or upset. These anecdotes, I write, “typically were not of broad scale but were small-bore. They described agitation and odd behavior among individuals, their families, or neighbors.”

But by no means did these accounts suggest fright that night reached the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.

For newspapers, however, the notion that The War of the Worlds show had caused great panic and alarm represented an irresistible opportunity to bash radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy upstart medium. And newspapers did so in overwhelmingly negative editorial commentary.

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” the New York Times declared about the show. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising.”

Such criticism was more than mildly self-serving. After all, radio by 1938 had become an increasingly important rival source for news, information, and advertising.

And that negative commentary helped to lock into place the mistaken notion that the radio show about Martian invaders had sown panic and hysteria across the country.

My talk was sponsored by the Library’s Center for the Book, which is directed by John Y. Cole. Library stalwarts in attendance today included Terri Sierra, Mark  Sweeney, Georgia Higley, and G. Travis Westly.


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Books and Banter club discusses ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I was honored that the Books and Banter club in Washington, D.C., selected Getting It Wrong for discussion at its October meeting.

Getting It Wrong is my latest book; it debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–dubious or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Sixteen members of the club met last night at a restaurant in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia–within a block or two of the underground parking garage where during the Watergate investigation Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward sometimes met his high-level federal source known as “Deep Throat.”

At the request of club member Paige Gold, who led the discussion, I dropped in for the closing half of the discussion about Getting It Wrong.

I told the club members that I didn’t consider Getting It Wrong as an exercise in media-bashing.

Rather, I said, I like to think of the book as aligned with a fundamental imperative in journalism–that of getting it right.

I had a great time fielding the club members’ very thoughtful, engaging, and intriguing questions.

Among those questions was whether media audiences bear any responsibility for the tenacity of media myths.

Not directly or significantly, I replied.

The myths addressed in Getting It Wrong are, in one way or another, all media-driven. Journalists and news organizations have been the primary culprits in pushing them. Their doing so is more than a little self-serving: After all, media myths serve to reinforce the notion that, for good or bad, the news media are central and decisive forces in American life.

So at one end of the scale, I said, “we have William Randolph Hearst, journalist-as-war-monger, who famously vowed to ‘furnish the war‘ with Spain” in the late 19th century.

At the other, I added, we have the heroic journalists of Watergate, Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein, whose investigative reporting brought down a corrupt presidency.

Myths such as those can be used to identify the media as malevolent forces or as indispensable guardians of truth and democratic values. And variety of that kind helps explain why media myths can be so tenacious.

I also was asked what should readers be sure to take away from the book.

In jest, I replied that I thought they should take away the recognition that Getting It Wrong is such a good book they should offer it as gifts to friends and family, especially at the year-end holidays.

Seriously, I added, the takeaway for readers may well be to treat media content with a healthy measure of skepticism, to realize that news reports often are tentative, incomplete, prone to error and revision.

This is especially the case in coverage of disasters, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a little more than five years ago.

Almost certainly, the early reports about a disaster will prove to be exaggerated in some fashion. The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans offers a telling reminder, I said.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, Katrina’s aftermath represented “no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

The flawed coverage–the erroneous reports of snipers firing at medical personnel and relief helicopters, of bodies being stacked like cordwood in the New Orleans convention center, of roving gangs raping and killing, of children with their throats slashed, of sharks plying the city’s flood waters–was not without consequences.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the over-the-top reporting “had the very real and serious effects of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of [storm] evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”


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‘Getting It Wrong’ plays the Tattered Cover

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 7, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Denver’s well-known Tattered Cover bookstore was the venue last night for a fine discussion about Getting It Wrong, my new book that addresses and debunks 10 prominent, media-driven myths.

At the Tattered Cover

About 60 people attended the book event, at least a few of whom had learned about it in listening to my in-studio interview Friday morning with David Sirota on KKZN, AM 760, Denver’s progressive talk radio station.

At the Tattered Cover, one of the country’s top independent bookstores, I discussed the myths of Watergate, of the “Cronkite Moment,” of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, and of the famous War of Worlds radio dramatization of  1938.

Those stories, I noted, are “all well-known—they are often taught in schools, colleges, and universities. They’re all delicious tales about the power of the news media to bring about change, for good or ill.”

And I proceeded to explain why all of them are media-driven myths–dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual. “They can be thought of as the junk food of journalism,” I noted. “Tasty and alluring, perhaps, but in the end, not terribly healthy or nutritious.”

The surprise of the evening came in discussing the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” in which President Lyndon Johnson supposedly realized U.S. policy in Vietnam was doomed, given the on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite that the war was “mired in stalemate.”

Among the reasons the “Cronkite Moment” is a media myth, I said, is that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired on February 27,  1968.

Johnson was not in Washington; he was not in front of a television set. He was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, who that day turned 51.

“At about the time Cronkite was intoning his ‘mired in stalemate’ commentary,” I said at the Tattered Cover, “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.'”

And with that, the audience burst into laughter.

Never before had the line prompted so many laughs. For some reason last night, it did.

The audience was attentive and inquisitive. Questions were raised about the media myth associated with coverage of the Jessica Lynch case and of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast five years ago this month.

Another question was about the cinema’s capacity to promote and propel media myths. It was a good observation, one that I wished I had emphasized earlier in my talk.

A telling example of the how cinematic can solidify media myths is to be found in the 1976 film All the President’s Men, an adaptation of the book by the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about their Watergate reporting.

As I write in Getting It Wrong the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “helped ensure the [heroic-journalist] myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

I noted in my talk that Bernstein and Woodward did not uncover the defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the burglars arrested at Democratic national headquarters in June 1972, the signal crime of Watergate. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office, which proved decisive in forcing the president’s resignation.

The Tattered Cover was a wonderful venue–comfortable, inviting. Its staff is exceptionally courteous and professional, and the hour-and-a-half went by extremely quickly.



Photo credit: Ann-Marie C. Regan

Myth-busting at Busboys and Poets

In Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 8, 2010 at 9:47 pm

It was a fine event last night at the Busboys and Poets restaurant/bookstore in the lively U Street corridor in Washington, D.C.

Despite the staggering, record-setting heat (temperatures reached 102 degrees in the capital), an engaging audience showed up for my talk about Getting It Wrong, my new book that busts 10 prominent media-driven myths.

I opened with a detailed look at what I called a “uniquely Washington historical event,” the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. Specifically, I described how the “heroic-journalist” interpretation has become the dominant narrative of Watergate–that is, how two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought Nixon down.

That interpretation, I said, represents a fundamental misreading of history, one that ignores the far more important and crucial contributions of subpoena-wielding authorities such as special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, federal investigators, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Against that tableau, newspapers—including the Post— were  decidedly modest factors” in determining Watergate’s outcome, I said. “Journalism’s contribution to Nixon’s fall was hardly decisive.”

Even principals of the Post have said as much over the years, I noted, quoting Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period who 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.”

Complexity-avoidance, I said, helps explain the tenacity of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate: Like many media myths, the heroic-journalist meme minimizes the intricacy of historical events in favor of simplistic, and misleading, interpretations.

It is far easier to focus on the exploits of the Washington Post reporters than it is to try to grapple with the intricacies and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal, I noted.

I also discussed media myths of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968; the “crack babies” scare of the 1980s and 1990s, and the misreporting that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina‘s landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

Members of the audience posed a number of very thoughtful questions, including one about why the “crack baby” scare became so widespread.

At Busboys and Poets

It was propelled in part, I said, by hurried, anecdotal reporting.

Reporters and columnists pushed too eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research about children born to women who took crack cocaine during pregnancy. The horrors that some journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved to be quite wrong.

Part of the explanation for the wide embrace of “crack baby” myth, I said, was that it offered something for everyone,” as the magazine Mother Jones once put it.

I write in Getting It Wrong that the crack baby phenomenon “inspired fearful commentary across political and ideological boundaries.” It 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.”

One of the best questions of the evening was about whether media audiences aren’t complicit in perpetuating media myths, whether media consumers have a role in myth-busting.

There is, I replied, plenty of room for media audiences to develop and hone a sense of skepticism, especially about news reports that seem too neat and tidy. Stories that seem too delicious, or too over the top, may prove to be inaccurate.

This also is the case with succinct turns of phrase. Quotations that “sound too neat and tidy,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “often are too perfect to be true.”



‘Getting It Wrong’ on the road in Oberlin, OH

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on June 27, 2010 at 8:40 am

I gave a talk yesterday about Getting It Wrong to an engaging audience at the college bookstore in Oberlin, Ohio.

The talk was facilitated quite well by Kira McGirr, the bookstore’s tradebook manager, and covered such topics as William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century, the myth of the “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968, and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

We also discussed the media-driven myth of “crack babies” and the famous 1938 radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, which supposedly was so dramatic that tens of thousands of Americans were seized by panic and mass hysteria.

One of Kira’s questions was how long it may take before the myths discussed and debunked in Getting It Wrong to be excised from history books. It’s a very good question, and difficult to say for sure.

I responded by saying some of the myths–such as those of Watergate and the War of the Worldsare so appealing, delicious, and ingrained that they may never be totally uprooted.

The same probably goes for Hearst’s purported vow: That anecdote has been around since 1901 and likely is too appealing ever to be utterly debunked. What’s more, the “furnish the war” tale is a neat, tidy, reductive way of explaining the causes of the Spanish-American War:  Hearst, the war-mongering publisher, is to blame.

It’s far easier to blame Hearst than it is to grapple with the complexities of the diplomatic demarche in 1897-98 that failed to resolve differences among Spain, Cuba, and the United States: Failed diplomacy, not the contents of Hearst’s yellow press, led to the Spanish-American War.

We also discussed how high-quality cinematic treatments can press media myths into the public consciousness.

That certainly was the case with All the President’s Men, the most-viewed movie about Watergate, in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played the starring roles of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The film depicted the reporters as central, indeed crucial, to cracking the Watergate scandal, I noted. For many Americans,  All the President’s Men is an important way of learning about Watergate. As I write in Getting It Wrong: “More than thirty-five years later, what remains most vivid, memorable, and accessible about Watergate is the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.”

The book talk coincided with Oberlin’s fifth annual Chalk Walk event, at which artists and aspiring artists draw often-elaborate pastel images on the sidewalks in the heart of town.

One of Kira’s colleagues, Amanda Turner, drew a fine rendering of the cover of Getting It Wrong at the entrance to the bookstore (see photo).

Amanda, Kira, and I posed for the photo below.
Several former classmates of mine at Oberlin Firelands High School (class of 1970) also attended the book talk.



Photo credit: Ann-Marie C. Regan (Chalk Walk images)

‘Getting It Wrong’ launched at Newseum

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 20, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Newseum program, audience view

Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, was launched at a terrific program yesterday at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.

The Newseum’s John Maynard moderated a brisk “Inside Media” talk, during which I reviewed the myths of:

  • William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain,
  • Edward R. Murrow‘s  1954 See It Now television program that supposedly ended Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt,
  • the so-called “Cronkite moment” of 1968,
  • the heroic-journalist of Watergate, and
  • the supposedly superlative reporting in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina‘s landfall in 2005.

The audience (see photo, above) posed several intriguing questions about the book. Among them was whether I thought the media myths confronted in Getting It Wrong would now be forever buried.

It’s probably too soon to say, given the book’s recent publication. But I mentioned in my reply that I’ve been struck by how dearly some myths are held.

The myth of the “Cronkite moment” is an example, I said: It seems quite difficult for some people to believe that Walter Cronkite’s program on Vietnam in February 1968 was not of decisive effect.

The “Cronkite moment” may live on, and continue to be embraced, despite the weight of the evidence that Cronkite’s television report about Vietnam was of scant importance in revising policy or in shaping the president’s thinking about reelection.

At the book launch

A question was posed about how media myths emerge, and I noted that they arise from several sources, including an urge to identify examples of media power. Another factor is  what I call “complexity-avoidance”–the appeal of simplified explanations for complex historical events.

It is, after all, far easier to believe that Hearst and his “yellow press” brought on the Spanish-American War in 1898, I said, than it is to grasp the complexities of the failed diplomacy among Spain, Cuba, and the United States that gave rise to that conflict. It is far easier to believe that the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency, I said, than it is to sort through tangled lines of investigation of the Watergate scandal that ultimately forced Nixon from office.

Even then, I said, Nixon may have served out his term if not for the tape-recordings he made of his private Oval Office conversations. Those tapes, which the U.S. Supreme Court forced Nixon to produce in 1974, revealed his guilty role in the Watergate coverup.

I also was asked whether there are other media myths to bust.

Indeed there are, I said.

Getting It Wrong may deserve a sequel and suggested as candidates for a follow-on book the dubious phenomenon of “Pharm Parties” and the question of whether Cronkite really was “the most trusted man in America.”

Book signing at Newseum

I signed copies of Getting It Wrong following the “Inside Media” program, and then toasted the book’s publication at a reception sponsored by the Newseum and American University’s School of Communication.

The School’s dean, Larry Kirkman, offered generous remarks in his toast at the reception, which was attended by AU colleagues, former students, past research assistants, and friends and family.



Photo credits:

  • Ruxandra Giura (audience view)
  • Bruce Guthrie

Launching ‘Getting It Wrong’ at Newseum

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 14, 2010 at 6:28 am

My new book, Getting It Wrong, will be launched Saturday, June 19, at an “Inside Media” program at the Newseum, the $450 million museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.

The program will begin at 2:30 p.m. in the Knight TV Studio on the third level and will feature a discussion with the Newseum’s John Maynard, followed by audience Q-and-A.

I’ll be signing copies of Getting It Wrong afterward.

The book addresses, and debunks, 10 prominent media-driven myths–stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, proved to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a brief description about each of the 10 myths:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” 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 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.

    Murrow in 1954

  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: Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment of U.S. war policy.
  6. Bra-burning: Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the 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 of extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the myths debunked “are among American journalism’s best-known stories. Most of them are savory tales. And at least some of them seem almost too good to be false.”

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



‘Getting It Wrong’ at Kensington’s ‘Day of the Book’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Year studies on April 25, 2010 at 8:19 am

I participated today in the “Day of the Book” festival in the antique row section of  Kensington, MD.

The event represented first book-event exposure for Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book that addresses, and debunks, 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Getting It Wrong will be published this summer by University of California Press. Chapter One may be read here.

Also on display at the “Day of the Book” was my year study, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, which was published in 2006. The book tells the story of a decisive year in American journalism.

Book signing in Kensington (AMR photo)

Principal organizer of the “Day of the Book” was Kensington Row Bookshop and at least 80 authors and poets had registered for the event.

The threat of rain kept some of them away. But nasty weather was a no-show and a fine time was had.

I enjoyed meeting several other local authors, including Bernadette LeDoux-Brodsky,  a Parisienne who used to teach French at Georgetown University; Bob Gregg, a retired dean and professor at American University, and Ben Farmer, a young author who graduated a few years ago from Kenyon College.

Bernadette said the ambiance in Kensington evoked for her the cafe scene of streets in Paris–sans les apéritifs, of course. She sold copies of her Ici et Ailleurs: Parisienne dans le Maryland. Bob sold several of his novels, among them The Scarecrow in the Vineyard. And the gregarious Ben Farmer seemed to make a lot of friends as well several sales of his new novel, Evangeline.

For me, the event was mostly a chance to gauge interest in Getting It Wrong. And more men than women stopped by to chat about the book and/or take a flyer.

There also was some mild interest in The Year That Defined American Journalism (see book-signing photo, above).

The dog in the picture? That’s Lil, our bichon frise. She was at the book fair, too, and proved to be quite the magnet.


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