W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Comfort food’

Every good historian a mythbuster

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 27, 2011 at 6:10 am

While researching studies of memorable or decisive years recently, I happened across a Washington Post review of The Year That Changed the World, a book about 1989.

I was impressed by this passage in the review:

The good historian is a mythbuster.”


Couldn’t agree more.

The reviewer, Gerard DeGroot, also wrote:

“The past is what happened, history what we decide to remember. We mine the past for myths to buttress our present.”

That’s well said, too. It’s a characterization that offers insight about the rise and diffusion of media-driven myths, 10 of which I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

History often is what we decide to remember. And we tend to remember what’s most accessible, what’s most easy to remember.

Take, for example, the mediacentric interpretation of Watergate, the greatest political scandal in American history, a scandal that destroyed a presidency and sent nearly twenty men to jail.

The shorthand, easy-to-grasp version of Watergate is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, aided immeasurably by a stealthy, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat,” brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

That’s also the mediacentric version of Watergate, the version journalists love to recall. It serves to remind them of the potential power of the news media.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, the mediacentric interpretation is misleading and historically inaccurate; it “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office,” I write.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I add, “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 argue, “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.”

So why do we choose to remember the Woodward-Bernstein-mediacentric interpretation of Watergate? Why has it become the dominant narrative of the scandal? That it is shorn of complexity and easy to grasp is one reason.

A more powerful reason is to be found in the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The book came out in June 1974 as Watergate was approaching its climax, and was a best-seller.

All the President’s Men was an even greater success in its screen adaptation. It was released 35 years ago this spring and surely ranks as the most-viewed movie about Watergate.

To an extent “far greater than the book,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I add, “was to solidify and elevate” the heroic-journalist myth of Woodward and Bernstein, “giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

For contemporary journalists who confront sustained and sweeping upheaval in their field, the mediacentric myth of Watergate is comforting,  reassuring.

Recalling the myth and treating it as authentic serves to buttress the present against the riptide of change.


Recent and related:

Media myths, the ‘comfort food’ of journalism

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on May 25, 2011 at 4:48 am

One of my favored characterizations of media-driven myths, those dubious tales about media power that masquerade as factual, is that they’re the “junk food of journalism.”

Not comforting at all

By that I mean they’re tasty and alluring, but not very nutritious, not very healthy.

The “junk food of journalism” is a turn of phrase suggested by an American University graduate student a few years ago. And, crediting him, I included that description in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out almost a year ago.

At a recent Roads Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) program at which I spoke about media myths, a participant offered a variation on “junk food of journalism.”

Media myths, she suggested, also are akin to “comfort food of journalism.”

The comfort food of journalism.

I liked the phrase. Liked it immediately.

Media myths, after all, do tend to offer comfort to journalists, the practitioners of a profession that’s largely unloved.

Tales such as those about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” or the heroic journalists who exposed Watergate make newsgathering seem vital, central, and essential. Those and other tales speak to the potential of journalism to do good, to make a difference.

The tales are indeed much like comfort food.

Seeking reassurance about the relevance of journalism helps explain the myth of superlative reporting that marred the coverage of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in late summer 2005.

The hurricane brought vast flooding to New Orleans, where levees failed.

“In the face of the deepening disaster, federal, state, and city emergency relief efforts proved sluggish, erratic, and stymied, especially in New Orleans,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Evidence of government incompetence at all levels was abundant, and became a powerful story. People were suffering in New Orleans, and journalists went after the story vigorously, posing lacerating questions of federal, state, and city authorities: Where was the aid? Why had it not arrived? What was to be done to help the evacuees?”

In the turmoil, traditional news media seemed vital and authoritative. They were “essential again,” as American Journalism Review declared in a cover story both flattering and comforting.

“Those first days were a time for intrepid TV cameramen to take us into the stench and the sweat, the anger and the not knowing, the fear of those who seemed abandoned by their own country,” American Journalism Review asserted. “Those first days were a time for newspapers to put aside jitters about their declining importance and worries about layoffs and cutbacks. The old papers instead reasserted the comfort and utility of news you could hold in your hand.”

It added:

“In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.”

Woah: “reunited the people and the reporters”? Talk about comfort food for the press.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, such self-reverential praise was “more than a little misleading.” The post-Katrina comfort-food story was largely wrong.

The reporting about Katrina’s aftermath was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I note, adding:

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

In the days immediately after Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror supposedly unleashed by the hurricane. Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood.

News reports spoke of roving gangs that preyed on tourists and terrorized the occupants of the Superdome. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

The exaggerated coverage not only delayed the arrival of aid to New Orleans; it impugned a battered city and defamed its residents, depicting them, inaccurately, as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.


Recent and related:

%d bloggers like this: