W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Crack babies’

‘Accurately, it turned out’? Hardly, in the Jefferson-Hemings allegations

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal on February 13, 2012 at 9:30 am

Media critic Jonathan Alter treated as settled history the other day the disputed and probably dubious claim that President Thomas Jefferson took as a mistress a slave named Sally Hemings.

In a  column for Bloomberg News, Alter wrote:

“Politics has been a contact sport since at least the election of 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson was accused (accurately, it turned out) of having an affair with ‘Dusky Sally’ Hemings, a slave.”

Accurately, it turned out?

That may hew to the dominant narrative about the purported Jefferson-Hemings liaison. But it’s far from proven, far from “accurate.”

Indeed, it’s quite unlikely.

Key evidence in the controversy centers around DNA testing conducted in 1998. The evidence indicated that the former president was among more than two dozen Jefferson men who were in Virginia at the time Hemings’ youngest child, Eston, was conceived in 1807.

Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate.

The DNA results were widely misreported when released, giving rise to the mistaken notion that the tests had confirmed Jefferson’s paternity.

However, as a detailed scholarly study published last year points out:

“The problem [in misinterpreting the DNA evidence] lies not only with a news media prone to over simplifying and sensationalizing complex stories.  Numerous prominent scholars have contributed to the misunderstanding by characterizing the DNA study as ‘confirming’ or ‘clinching’ the case for Thomas Jefferson’s paternity.”

The scholarly study, an impressive work titled The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission, further notes that the DNA tests “were never designed to prove, and in fact could not have proven, that Thomas Jefferson was the father of any of Sally Hemings’ children.”

The book — which has received scant attention from mainstream American media — presents a circumstantial case pointing to Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph (or his sons), in the question of Eston Hemings’ paternity.

Randolph Jefferson, the book says, was known to have socialized with the slaves at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia.

Randolph Jefferson was a dozen years younger than the president, and the available record offers no evidence that Thomas Jefferson “enjoyed socializing at night with Monticello slaves,” the book says.

The scholars commission that compiled the volume describes the case as closed by no means.

Indeed, the scholars commission writes in The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy that a “more rational conclusion, from the totality of the evidence before us, is that Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s lover, and her children were not his children.”

To assert otherwise — to insist on the accuracy of claims about Jefferson’s purported sexual relationship with a slave — is to indulge in a sort of sloppy, take-it-for-granted kind of reporting.

Sloppy, take-it-for-granted reporting can be a factor in the emergence and durability of media-driven myths, the subject of my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in Getting It Wrong, for example, that hurried and sloppy reporting propelled the media myth of “crack babies,” in which journalists in the 1980s and 1990s “pushed too hard and eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research. And the horrors they predicted, that ‘crack babies‘ would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class — a ‘bio-underclass’ of staggering dimension — proved quite wrong.”

Decidedly wrong.


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USAT evokes mythical ‘crack baby’ scare in report on drug-dependent newborns

In Debunking, Media myths on November 15, 2011 at 7:56 am

USA Today evoked the media-hyped crack baby scare yesterday in a front page report telling of “explosive growth” in numbers of newborns supposedly hooked on prescription drugs.

The report, which appeared with the headline “Surge in babies addicted to drugs,” offered scant hard data and over-the-top word choice, not unlike news accounts of the supposed crack baby epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the crack baby scare “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research.” It turned out to be, as the New York Times put it in 2009, “the epidemic that wasn’t.”

The USA Today article opened with alarming-sounding news that medical authorities “are witnessing explosive growth in the number of newborn babies hooked on prescription painkillers, innocent victims of their mothers’ addictions.

“The trend,” the newspaper declared, “reflects how deeply rooted abuse of powerful narcotics, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, has become.”

To support the claim of “explosive growth,” USA Today turned to a lawyer-politician, the Florida attorney general, who was quoted as saying:

“I’m scared to death this will become the crack-baby epidemic.”

Which, of course, proved mostly an epidemic of media hype.

It didn’t take long for the USA Today account to turn squishy, acknowledging in the fourth paragraph a lack of hard data on this “explosive” topic.

“National statistics on the number of babies who go through withdrawal are not available,” we’re told, “and states with the worst problems have only begun to collect data.”

So USA Today really doesn’t know whether, or just where, the “explosive growth” in drug-dependent newborns is taking place.

The article offered data from Florida, stating that “the number of babies with withdrawal syndrome soared from 354 in 2006 to 1,374 in 2010,” without explaining how the data were collected, or for how long. Or without saying how many children were born those years in Florida.

Lamely, the article stated:

“Scattered reports show the number of addicted newborns has doubled, tripled or more over the past decade.” Which hardly supports the assertion of “explosive growth” in addicted newborns.

Readers also were told of a range of symptoms that drug-hooked newborns exhibit: “They scream, twitch and vomit. They have trouble breathing and eating. They rub their noses with their fists so much their skin bleeds.”

It’s all evocative of the news media’s crack-baby hype, especially in what Jane Brody of the New York Times called “a wide spectrum of ill effects that can result from fetal exposure to cocaine.”

Those effects, Brody wrote in 1988, “include retarded growth in the womb and subtle neurological abnormalities, which may afflict a majority of exposed newborns. In more extreme cases, cocaine can cause loss of the small intestine and brain-damaging strokes. … The litany of threats to newborns is long and growing.”

Indeed, Brody declared, so powerful was the drug that “research suggests that a single cocaine ‘hit’ during pregnancy can cause lasting fetal damage.”

Which was an extraordinary overstatement.

The much-predicted social catastrophe of crack babies, I write in Getting It Wrong, “never materialized.”

Fears that American society “would be overwhelmed by a lost generation of crack-damaged misfits proved wildly exaggerated, a ‘grotesque media stereotype,’ in the words of Deborah A. Frank, one of the country’s leading authorities on prenatal drug exposure.”

I also note:

“The adverse effects that journalists so often attributed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to prenatal exposure to crack turned out to be associated with a variety of factors — such as use during pregnancy of tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana — as well as the quality of the newborn’s environment and the quality of the mother’s prenatal care.”

The crack-baby myth was buoyed, I write, by a tendency among journalists “to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research, and to reach for certainty and definitiveness that are not often found in preliminary findings.”

Journalists pushed too hard on thin, preliminary, and sketchy data, and extrapolated rather extravagantly from small numbers of anecdotes.

It’s a pattern that tends to repeat itself, as journalists fail to take lessons from misreported drug scares of the past.

“What reporters need to do,” the inestimable media critic Jack Shafer has written,  “is challenge their sources in criminal justice, medicine, drug treatment, legislatures, and the user community when they make assertions of fact.

“Among the great failings of the press corps during the crack panic was its enthusiastic endorsement of the trend of ‘crack babies.’ Experts of all stripes lectured the press about these infants, whose chances at normal, healthy lives had been destroyed because their mothers were habituated to cocaine or crack.

“It was all lies.”

None of this is intended to endorse, advocate, or excuse the misuse of prescription drugs.

It is, rather, to underscore and call out the easy temptations of drug-scare stories.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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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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‘What’s a couple of centuries’ when it comes to China and Zhou Enlai?

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Media myths on July 3, 2011 at 5:58 am

When Zhou Enlai observed that it was “too early” to assess the significance of political upheaval in France, he was speaking about the turmoil of 1968, and not, as is often believed, about the French Revolution that began in 1789.

Zhou greets Nixon, 1972

The Independent newspaper in London referred to the Zhou misunderstanding in an editorial posted yesterday, and essentially shrugged it off, stating :

“Revisionists now claim that he was commenting not on the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but on the student riots of 1968. But what’s a couple of centuries to a China still engaged in its own long march to modernity?”

The editorial’s snark and breezy dismissiveness may be because the “revisionists” include the Financial Times, a rival London newspaper.

The Financial Times was first to call attention to the mistaken interpretation of Zhou’s remark.

Zhou, the Chinese premier, said during President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in February 1972 that it was “too early to say” what were the implications of political upheaval in France.

Charles (Chas) Freeman, an American diplomat who was Nixon’s interpreter on the China visit, told a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., last month that Zhou clearly was speaking about the turmoil and student protests in France in 1968 — not the French revolution of nearly 200 years before.

A reporter for the Financial Times moderated the panel discussion and in his article wrote that Freeman said:

“There was a mis­understanding [about Zhou’s remark] that was too delicious to invite correction.”

In a subsequent interview with me, Freeman said:

“I cannot explain the confusion about Zhou’s comment, except in terms of the extent to which it conveniently bolstered a stereotype” about Chinese leaders’ taking an exceptionally long and patient view of history.

Stereotyping helps explain why Zhou’s comment has been so widely quoted — and why debunking its erroneous and more extravagant interpretation really does matter.

Stereotyping, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, can be buoyed by media-driven myths, those dubious media-centric stories that masquerade as factual.

In Getting It Wrong, I note a number of examples of stereotypes that have been bolstered by media myths.

I write: “The misleading if euphonic epithet of ‘bra-burning‘ emerged from a demonstration on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968 to become shorthand for denigrating the emergent feminist movement and dismissing it as trivial and even a bit odd. The widely misreported pandemic of ‘crack babies‘ in the late 1980s and early 1990s seemed to confirm the worst pathologies associated with inner-city poor people.”

Rather than reflecting China’s supposedly long and patient view of history, Zhou’s “too early” observation was cautious analysis about events that were fairly recent and still under interpretation.

Zhou’s was a pragmatic observation, hardly sage or long-sighted.


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Recalling how a ‘debunker’s work is never done’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 20, 2011 at 5:45 am

It’s been a year since Jack Shafer, media critic for slate.com, posted his review of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. The review offered the telling observation that a “debunker’s work is never done.”

So true.

In the 52 weeks since the review went online, I’ve posted more than 275 essays at Media Myth Alert, nearly all of them calling attention to media-driven myths that have found their way into traditional or online media.

So, no, a debunker’s work is never done.

The top posts over the past 52 weeks, as measured by page views, were these:

Shafer’s review sent traffic to Media Myth Alert, too, as it linked to my post that critically discussed Evan Thomas’ book, The War Lovers.

The review, which appeared beneath the headline “The Master of Debunk,” noted that “the only way to debunk an enshrined falsehood is with maximum reportorial firepower.”

And repetitive firepower. Debunking media myths will happen no other way.

Even then, some myths are so deeply ingrained — so delicious, beloved, and readily at hand — that they’ll probably never be thoroughly uprooted and forgotten.

The tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century is an excellent example. It’s been around more than 100 years.

And it surely is apocryphal, for a long list of reasons I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

Even so, “furnish the war” lives on — hardy, robust, and apparently only slightly dented for all the debunking broadsides hurled its way. Evan Thomas turned to it in War Lovers. So, more recently, did the Nieman Watchdog blog.

Another especially hardy media myth is the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when Walter Cronkite’s on-air assessment that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam supposedly prompted President Lyndon Johnson to declare:

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

Or something along those lines. Versions vary markedly.

That they do vary is among the many indicators the “Cronkite Moment” is media myth. Another, more direct indicator is that Johnson did not see the program when it aired.

The “Cronkite Moment” surely will live on, too, as it represents so well the news media conceit of the effects of telling truth to power, of serving as the indispensable watchdog of government.

Shafer noted the durability of media myths in one of his periodic dismantlings of the “pharm party” phenomenon, which in some form has circulated for 40-some years. (The mythical “pharm party” has it that teens swipe pharmaceuticals from medicine cabinets at home, dump the purloined pills into a bowl at a party, and take turns swallowing handfuls to see what sort of high they’ll reach.)

Shafer wrote early last year:

“I regret to inform you that this column has failed to eradicate the ‘pharm party’ meme. Since June 2006, I’ve written five columns … debunking pharm parties, and yet the press keeps on churning out stories that pretend the events are both real and ubiquitous.”

He added:

“Any myth hearty enough to survive and thrive for 40-plus years in the media is probably unkillable.”

The Hearstian vow is easily within the 40-plus-years category. So, too, are the “Cronkite Moment,” the Bay of Pigs suppression myth, and the War of the Worlds panic meme.

Irrepressible myths, all.


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The enduring appeal for journalists of the would-be apocalyptic

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post on May 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

The Wall Street Journal  over the weekend carried an intriguing commentary about the appeal of the apocalyptic, a commentary pegged to predictions of a Christian radio network that Saturday next will mark the end of days.

Terrible, but not apocalyptic

“Why are such apocalyptic prophecies so common in human history? What are their emotional and cognitive underpinnings?” the Journal commentary asked.

“In most doomsday scenarios,” it noted, “destruction is followed by redemption, giving us a sense of both fear and hope. The ostensible ‘end’ is usually seen as a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come.”

When posed in a slightly different manner, the question has relevance for journalists: What accounts for the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic that often emerges in the reporting of upheaval and disasters?

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic helps define and animate such coverage. And it helps explain why news reporting of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005 and of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s was so distorted and exaggerated.

By “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic,” I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”

This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”

I write in Getting It Wrong that Hurricane Katrina – which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005 – seemed in news reports to have unleashed “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”

But little of the news media’s apocalyptic-like reporting of mayhem, violence, and anarchy in post-Katrina New Orleans proved true.

The “crack baby” scare, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.’”

The scare was based on the widely reported belief that prenatal exposure to crack cocaine would give rise to a generation of misfits, of children so mentally and physically damaged that they would forever be wards of the state.

Commentators turned to phrases such as “bio-underclass” to characterize the disaster they said lie ahead. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer invoked “bio-underclass” in 1989, declaring in a column in the Washington Post:

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free: “neither prudent nor sensible,” I write.

However, I note, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping.” And biomedical research has found nothing akin to the “bio-underclass” that Krauthammer and others warned about more than 20 years ago.

Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I argue in Getting It Wrong, because doing so permits “insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research.” They seize upon the would-be apocalyptic instead.


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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.


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Sniffing out media myths

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 17, 2010 at 8:19 am

I had a fine interview about Getting It Wrong the other day with Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times, the fruits of which appear in his column today.

He writes that Getting It Wrong, my latest book, “picks apart some of journalism’s key moments, from the notion that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s White House (action by the FBI, U.S. Congress and Supreme Court actually did that), to the myth of babies born to crack-addicted moms swamping the country and the idea that CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite turned public opinion on the Vietnam War with a single critical broadcast (public opinion had been souring on the war for months).”

Deggans cleverly structured the column as a series of “clues to spot myths in the making.”

Tip-offs mentioned in his column are:

  • Myths can seem too good to be true.
  • Myths tend to support the notion of media power.
  • Myths simplify complex issues and historical events.

Those factors certainly do characterize media-driven myths, which are prominent stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Media myths can be thought of as the junk food of journalism–tasty and alluring, perhaps, but not terribly nutritious or healthy.

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

Media myths, I point out in Getting It Wrong, do “tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society, conferring on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.”

They are media-centric. Self-flattering.

As I further write in Getting It Wrong:

“Media myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do and tend to extend credit where credit is not entirely due.”

What I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is an example of such hero-seeking.

The myth has it that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

“In reality,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the Post and other news organizations were marginal factors in unraveling the Watergate scandal. Nixon’s fall was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces, newspaper reporting being among the least decisive.”

And yet the Watergate myth lives on, as an example of the news media exerting power in an effective and beneficial manner.

Media myths also endure, I write, because they tend to be reductive. That is,  they simplify, they “offer unambiguous, easily remembered explanations about complex historic events.”

It is, after all, far easier to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of unraveling Watergate than it is to grapple with and understand the sprawling complexity of the scandal.

Media myths also invite indulgence in the “golden age fallacy,” a flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring—the time, say, of Woodward and Bernstein.

Interestingly, Woodward has scoffed at the notion that he and Bernstein took down Nixon. Woodward said in an interview in 2005:

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

To the list of tip-offs that Deggans discusses, I would add: “Myths often fail the sniff test.” Tales that are quite neat and tidy do tend to emit a whiff of phoniness.

Pithy quotes such as William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain fail the sniff test. They invite suspicion because they seem almost too perfect, too neat and tidy.

Hearst’s famous vow is examined in Chapter One in Getting It Wrong.

In closing, I note another newspaper reference to Getting It Wrong.

Leo Morris, editorial page editor at the News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, wrote the other day that he the book “sounded so intriguing” that he was prompted to download its Kindle edition.

Morris’ brief piece carried the headline: “Journalism’s mythtakes.”

Clever. “Mythtakes.” I like it.


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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.”



Seeking antidotes to journalism’s ‘junk food’

In Bra-burning, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on July 2, 2010 at 12:31 am

Media-driven myths—those false, dubious yet prominent stories about the news media that masquerade as factual—can be thought of as the junk food of journalism. They’re alluring and delicious, but neither especially wholesome nor healthy.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, media-driven myths can spring from many sources. War is an especially fertile breeding ground for media myths, partly because the shock of combat is alien and unfamiliar to most people. Given their limited first-hand experience with war, media audiences generally are in no position to challenge reports from the battlefield.

“The confusion and intensity inherent in warfare can lead journalists to place fragmented information that emerges from conflict into recognizable if sometimes misleading frames,” I write.

An example of that came early in the Iraq War in 2003, with the Washington Post’s erroneous report about the battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch, a topic discussed in Getting It Wrong. The Post’s characterization of Lynch as a female Rambo, pouring lead into attacking Iraqis, did not seem entirely implausible. It was, after all, a story picked up by news organizations around the world.

Hurried and sloppy reporting, which certainly figured in the sensational report about Lynch, also contributes to the rise to media myths. The myth of “crack babies” of the late 1980s and 1990s was certainly propelled by hurried reporting, by over-eager journalism and by premature medical findings.

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 many journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved quite wrong.

So are there antidotes to media-driven myths?

I argue in Getting It Wrong that while “they spring from multiple sources, it is not as if media-driven myths are beyond being tamed.”

To slow or thwart the spread of media myths, journalists might start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as William Randolph Hearst’s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Turns of phrase that sound too neat and too tidy often are too good to be true.

Journalists also would do well to cultivate greater recognition of their fallibility. Too often they seem faintly concerned with correcting the record they tarnish. They tend not to like revisiting major flaws and errors. As Jack Shafer, media critic for the online magazine Slate, has written:

“The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact—proper spellings of last names, for example—than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Not surprisingly, there was no sustained effort by the news media to set straight the record about the chimerical scourge of “crack babies.” Not surprisingly, there was little sustained effort to explore and explain the distorted and badly flawed reporting from New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Encouraging a culture of skepticism and tolerance for viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms also would help curb the rise and dissemination of media-driven myths. Newsrooms can seem like bastions of group-think. Michael Kelly, the former editor of National Journal and the Atlantic once observed:

“Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Group-think and viewpoint diversity are not topics often discussed in American newsrooms. But they’re hardly irrelevant. It is not inconceivable that a robust newsroom culture that embraces encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassingly mistaken tales such as the Post’s account about Jessica Lynch.

Another antidote to media-driven myths is offered by the digitization of newspapers and other media content.

Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past. Never has journalism’s record been more readily accessible, through such databases as ProQuest and LexisNexis.

Reading what was written makes it clear that radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds in 1938 created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Edward R. Murrow’s televised critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 was belated and quite unremarkable.

Reading what was written can be a straightforward and effective antidote to media-driven myths.


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

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