W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Golden age fallacy’

Embracing media myths — and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Television on January 3, 2014 at 12:29 pm

The “golden age” approach to media history — the notion that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were virtuous and inspiring — is flawed in at least three ways: It treats the past as little more than nostalgia; it elevates once-prominent journalists to heroic status, and it encourages the embrace of media-driven myths.

Outrage Industry_coverSuch shortcomings are evident in portions of The Outrage Industry, a new book that deplores the crude, offensive, and over-the-top commentary on some talk radio and cable news programs these days.

The authors, Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, are Tufts University professors who claim that “in the past twenty-five years this form of commentary has come into its own, as a new genre of political opinion media that we term outrage.”

Their book, though, embraces the “golden age” fallacy and invokes media myths about prominent broadcast journalists Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

The authors write of “a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism.”

Berry and Sobieraj praise Cronkite as “a towering figure in American journalism, widely respected as a paragon of common sense and integrity. For 20 years he anchored the CBS evening news and narrated the live events that drew Americans to the program, helping them to make sense of turbulent times.”

The authors refer to a poll that “ranked him as the most trusted figure in America.” And they invoke the mythical “Cronkite Moment of 1968, writing:

“When Cronkite came to believe that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, President Lyndon Johnson told an aide, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

The putative “Cronkite Moment” is an irresistible anecdote, suggesting that prominent journalists once had the power to influence presidents and shape public policy.

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Except there’s no first-hand evidence that Johnson ever made the remark about having “lost Cronkite.” (As for their evidence, Berry and Sobieraj cite an obituary about Cronkite published in 2009 in the Washington Post.) Johnson supposedly made the comment in an epiphanous moment on February 27, 1968, at the close of Cronkite’s special report that said the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

But as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired; the president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie party marking Governor John Connally’s 51st birthday.

It is difficult to fathom how the president could have been much influenced by a program he did not watch.

And at about the moment when Johnson supposedly declared he had “lost Cronkite,” the president actually was making light of Connally’s age, saying:

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

Evidence is scant, moreover, that Cronkite’s report had any influence on popular opinion. Indeed, Gallup surveys had detected shifts in public sentiment against Vietnam months before Cronkite’s special report. If anything, then, Cronkite can be said to have followed rather than have precipitated deepening popular disenchantment about the war.

And as for the poll that rated Cronkite “the most trusted figure in America” — it was hardly a fair assessment.

Oliver Quayle and Company in 1972 conducted a survey to measure public trust among then-prominent U.S. politicians. More than 8,700 respondents in 18 states were interviewed.

For reasons unclear, Cronkite was included in the poll, meaning he was compared to the likes of Richard Nixon, Edmund S. Muskie,  George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, and Spiro T. Agnew.

Not surprisingly, Cronkite led the poll, scoring a “trust index” of 73 percent. The generic “average senator” was next with 67 percent. Muskie was third with 61 percent.

As media critic Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009, Cronkite’s score seems impressive until you consider “the skunks polled alongside him.”

CBS publicists embraced the survey’s results, though. On Election Day in November 1972, the network took out prominent display advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

The ads touted Cronkite as the “most trusted American in public life.”

Separately, a Phillips-Sindlinger survey conducted by telephone in 1973 rated Howard K. Smith of ABC News the most trusted and objective U.S. newscaster. Cronkite came in fourth.

But the year after that, the Phillips-Sindlinger survey had Cronkite in first place among newscasters, followed by John Chancellor of NBC.

So the “most trusted” characterization of Cronkite is a slippery one.

Berry and Sobieraj wax rhapsodic about Murrow, who sometimes is called the patron saint of American broadcast journalism.



They write that “TV news gained gravitas through the investigative journalism of CBS’s Edward R. Murrow who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the senator’s power on Murrow’s program See It Now. The most critical episode, in which Murrow interviewed McCarthy himself, opened the senator up to national scrutiny and ultimately contributed to his censure.”

That’s one myth-packed claim.

Murrow did take on McCarthy, but belatedly — many months and even years after other journalists had pointedly called attention to the senator’s abusive tactics in investigating communists in government.

McCarthy had been the subject of considerable “national scrutiny” long before Murrow’s See It Now program of March 9, 1954, which Berry and Sobieraj refer to as the “most critical episode.”

Murrow made extensive  use during that half-hour show of film clips showing McCarthy at his odious worst. But Murrow did not interview the senator on the program, as Berry and Sobieraj write.

Moreover, it is unlikely the See It Now program much contributed to McCarthy’s downfall.

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred Friendly, asserted in his memoir that what “made the real difference” in toppling McCarthy “wasn’t the Murrow program but the fact that ABC decided to run the Army-McCarthy hearings” in the spring of 1954. The hearings investigated allegations that McCarthy’s top aide had sought preferential treatment for a former staff member drafted into the Army.

In broadcasting the hearings, “ABC helped put the mirror up to Joe McCarthy,” Friendly wrote. The senator emerged badly wounded, due mostly to his bombastic ways. In late 1954, the Senate censured McCarthy for his conduct, signaling his political eclipse.

The “golden age” treatment of media history has another problem — the tendency to don blinkers.

Prominent journalists back when weren’t all that virtuous. Or “towering.” They weren’t paragons of integrity. Murrow, for example, privately counseled Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1956, on the finer points of television appearance.

Murrow was no flawless white knight of American journalism. Nor, for that matter, was Walter Cronkite.


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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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