W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘FAQs’

Media myths: FAQs, Part Two

In Media myths on November 8, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Q: Which media myths has been around the longest?

A: The anecdote of Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain dates back almost 120 years. It was first recounted in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a bluff, cigar-chomping journalist who admired Hearst’s style of aggressive, activist journalism. In his book, Creelman recounted the vow in an admiring way, saying it demonstrated how Hearst’s “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events. But over the years, the vow took on far more sinister overtones. And that’s how it’s usually told today—as an example of media power run amok. It’s also the statement most often attributed to Hearst. But he denied ever having made such a vow.

Q: So why is it important to take time and energy to debunk media-driven myths?

A: Because they aren’t trivial, and they aren’t innocuous. Media-driven myths can and do have adverse consequences. They tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society. They often confer on the news media far more power and influence than they really possess. Media myths tend to minimize the complexity of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations. And media myths can deflect blame away from the makers and sponsors of flawed public policy.

Media myths can feed stereotypes, too. The highly exaggerated news reports of nightmarish violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005 essentially defamed the battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.

Media myths also invite indulgence in the “golden age fallacy”—a flawed but appealing belief that there really was a time when journalists were inspiring and respected heroic figures.

So media-driven myths can be deceiving and illusory. Trivial and innocuous, they aren’t.

Q: What fresh insights does this book offer?

A: There are many. The chapter in Getting It Wrong on the War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938 calls attention to how second- and third-hand accounts spread rapidly as the broadcast unfolded and became significant and but little-recognized sources of fright that October night. A false-alarm contagion took hold in many places in the country, sowing fear and confusion among many people who had heard not a single word of the program.

The chapter about the media-driven myth of the New York Times’ bowing to White House pressure and suppressing its reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 offers new evidence, too. The chapter demonstrates how President John F. Kennedy had almost no opportunity to call the Times and bring pressure to bear when a crucial news report about the pending invasion was edited and prepared for publication.

Getting It Wrong also demonstrates how the erroneous media reports about the supposed heroism of Private Jessica Lynch during the first days of the Iraq War in 2003 obscured the truly heroic deeds of another U.S. soldier, Sergeant Donald Walters. It’s pretty clear that Lynch initially received credit in the media for the actions of Donald Walters, who was captured and executed by Iraqi irregulars. But Walters’ heroics have received only scant and passing attention from the news media.

Q: In short, what are this book’s most important contributions?

Getting It Wrong challenges media-centric interpretations of history, offers perspective about media power and influence, and endeavors to set the record straight on some of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself. It’s also offers a cautionary tale about the capacity of the news media to present misleading or distorted interpretations of important events.

It should be noted, too, that no other book has addressed and examined prominent media-driven myths the way Getting It Wrong does.


Media myths: FAQs, Part One

In Media myths on November 2, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Q: So what are media-driven myths?

A: They are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Media-driven myths are dubious tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence. They can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism.” Or as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as factual, in some cases for decades.

Q: Give me an example of a media-driven myth.

A: There are many of them. Certainly well-known is the tale that two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon. It’s an appealing story, evoking David vs. Goliath and all. But it’s a media myth. Nixon’s fall was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces—newspapers being among the least decisive. Journalism’s contribution to Nixon’s fall was modest at best. But it’s far easier to focus on the exploits of the two heroic journalists than it is to grapple with the intricacies and baffling complexities of the Watergate scandal.

A similar dynamic helped propel the media myth of Edward R. Murrow’s television program in 1954, which supposedly unmasked Senator Joseph McCarthy and ended his virulent, communists-in-government witch-hunt. Many factors combined to bring about McCarthy’s downfall, not the least of which were his own excesses and miscalculations. But the notion that Murrow was the giant killer is very appealing, often taught, and easy to remember.

Q: And where do media-driven myths come from?

A: They arise from many sources—including the tendency to believe the news media are very powerful and sometimes even dangerous forces in society. Media myths also are appealing because they offer simplistic answers to complex issues.  Stories that are too good—too delicious—to be checked out also can become media myths. Those three factors—media power, simple answers to complex questions, and a sense of being too good not to be true—help explain the emergence and tenacity of one of the most famous media myths—the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain. That anecdote is rich, telling, and delicious—and fits well with the image of Hearst as war-monger. But it’s almost certainly apocryphal.

Sloppy reporting, and anecdote-driven reporting, can give rise to media myths, too. We see that in the myth of “crack babies” of the late 1980s and 1990s— that children born to women who took cocaine during pregnancy were fated to become what journalists called a “bio underclass.” Doing crack while pregnant is lunacy. But the much-feared social catastrophe, the “bio underclass,”  never materialized.

High-quality cinematic treatments can be powerful agents of media myth-making, too. Millions of Americans born after 1954 were introduced to the famous Murrow-McCarthy confrontation through Good Night, and Good Luck, a critically acclaimed motion picture released in 2005. Good Night, and Good Luck cleverly promoted the view that Murrow stood up to McCarthy when no one else would or could.

See more FAQs here.


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