W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Katrina’

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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‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

The Society of Professional Journalists announced today that my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, is the winner of the 2010 Sigma Delta Chi award for Research about Journalism.

The award will be presented in September at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans.

Getting It Wrong, which was published last year by the University of California Press, debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, which are dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Here’s a summary of the 10 myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow “to furnish the war” with Spain 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.
  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 or revision 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 about extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

The “Research about Journalism” award recognizes “an investigative study about some aspect of journalism,” SPJ says, and “must be based on original research; either published or unpublished, and must have been completed during the 2010 calendar year. … Judges will consider value to the profession, significance of the subject matter, thoroughness of the research, and soundness of the conclusion.”


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A cautionary note on early coverage of dramatic events

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 3, 2011 at 8:17 am

Amid yesterday’s jubilation about the slaying of terror leader Osama bin Laden, the media critic at slate.com, Jack Shafer, posted a timely and telling reminder that initial news reports of major events seldom are reliable.

This is especially so, I would add, in covering disasters: The early accounts almost always are erroneous.

Got it wrong in New Orleans

The coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, which I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is instructive: News reports about the surreal violence that the storm supposedly unleashed on New Orleans in late summer 2005 were highly exaggerated and wildly inaccurate.

“Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I write, adding, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. ”

In his column about the coverage of the killing of bin Laden, Shafer noted that “the fog of breaking news almost always cloaks the truth, especially when the deadline news event is a super-top-secret military operation conducted by commandos halfway around the world and the sources of the sexiest information go unnamed.”

He pointed out the wide variance in the early reports about bin Laden’s violent end, noting such discrepancies as these:

  • ABC News: “He was shot in the head and then shot again to make sure he was dead.”
  • The Atlantic: “One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face.”
  • The London Sun: “Elite troops opened fire when the 9/11 terror chief refused to surrender, hitting him in the head and chest. …”
  • MSNBC.com: “[H]e was shot in the left eye.”

Shafer added: “At some point, after reporters have time to independently report the events behind the raid, we’ll have a verified picture of who did what when instead of the official versions we’re reading and viewing today. Until then, it’s caveat emptor for news consumers.”

Journalists would do well to offer such reminders more frequently than they do.

Cautionary notes ought to be routine, as should specific reference to the challenges of reporting military operations from afar.

Such distance-reporting, after all, can give rise to errors that are both memorable and acutely embarrassingly. The Jessica Lynch case, which unfolded during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003 and which is discussed in Getting It Wrong, is memorable in that regard.

The Washington Post, drawing on sources it has never identified (but should), offered the world a sensational report about the battlefield heroics of Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who never expected to see combat.

Elements of her units fell under ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

According to the Post’s front-page article — which was mostly reported by journalists based in Washington — Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

The Post’s sensational report about Lynch was picked up by news outlets around the country and the world. But it was wrong, utterly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the ambush. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash.

But she was neither shot nor stabbed.

Lynch was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death before being rescued on April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

The Post report offers another reminder about covering combat — the passage of time is no guarantee of accuracy in reporting. The sensational account about Lynch appeared on the Post’s front page of April 3, 2003, 11 days after the ambush at Nasiriyah.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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A fiasco for the press, too: Error, hype marked Bay of Pigs reporting

In Anniversaries, Bay of Pigs, Debunking, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on April 15, 2011 at 3:17 am

The Wall Street Journal told of at least three landings in “a land, air and sea struggle” to topple Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba.

Miami Herald headline

The Miami Herald spoke of battles raging “throughout” the island.

The United Press International wire service said invading “revolutionaries … appeared to have knocked back Fidel Castro’s forces in the initial assault.”

Thus, a sampling of some of the erroneous first U.S. news reports about the ill-fated invasion of Cuba, launched 50 years ago this weekend at the Bay of Pigs.

Castro’s military overwhelmed the assault in less than three days; the CIA-trained invasion force of some 1,400 Cuban exiles never gained much more than a bitterly contested beachhead.

The thwarted invasion entrenched Castro’s dictatorship and represented a major foreign policy setback for the United States and the three-month-old administration of President John F. Kennedy.

It was something of a fiasco for the U.S. news media as well.

Raul Castro: Not captured

No correspondents were with the invading forces and Castro’s regime imposed a blackout on U.S. correspondents assigned to Cuba. The first news accounts of the invasion of April 17, 1961, as a result were wildly inaccurate and, in some cases, highly colorful and imaginative.

Those initial reports, while still interesting on their face, offer timeless testimony to the extraordinary difficulties of covering conflict from afar.

They also offer a lesson the U.S. news media seem intent on never remembering: First reports from the battlefield, or from the scene of a disaster, almost reliably will be in error. Cautious reporting and scrutiny of sources are thus always advisable amid uncertain and shifting conditions.

Such lessons tend to remain unlearned, however — as was apparent in the highly exaggerated news reports about violence and mayhem that supposedly swept New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005.

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the erroneous and exaggerated reporting [about post-Katrina New Orleans] had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

I further note that “initial and worst-case estimates of disaster casualties almost always are exaggerated. … Recognition of this tendency may well have helped to temper or curb the exaggerated reports of lawlessness and violence” in Katrina’s wake.

Revisiting the Bay of Pigs coverage also demonstrates how wished-for outcomes can color and distort news coverage.

The Miami Herald, which clearly wanted Castro gone, was eager to report imagined gains by the undermanned exile force, while offering no sources at all in its breathless accounts.

Beneath a banner headline that read, “Invaders Slug Into Interior,” the Herald reported on April 18, 1961, that the anti-Castro rebels “were pushing into the interior of Cuba” after launching assaults “at several key points” on the island.

“It was brother against brother,” the Herald said of the fighting, adding, “A virtual blackout was stretched across Cuba since the first shot of the civil war was fired.”

The newspaper further reported — while citing no sources — that it had “learned that the rebel troops are paying heavily for every mile gained.”

The Herald also attempted to divine the invaders’ strategy, asserting: “Rebels pouring in from Las Villas in the soft underbelly of Cuba were headed towards Central Highway in an apparent attempt to control the strategic road and cut the island in two.”

While somewhat more cautious than the colorful account in the Miami Herald, the Wall Street Journal of April 18, 1961, reported that at “least three widely scattered landings” had “brought an immediate state of emergency and brisk fighting inside Cuba and rapid repercussions around the globe.”

The Journal noted that the “cutoff of telephone and cable communications by the Castro government and conflicting battle reports made the tide of fighting difficult to assess,” but added:

“The invaders seem bent on cutting Cuba in half, then wheeling westward to Havana, about 100 miles from their original beachhead.”

The Journal didn’t hold back from publishing what it acknowledged were unverified reports that anti-Castro forces had captured the Isle of Pines and freed 10,000 political prisoners; had taken Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second-largest city, and had seized Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

“None of these reports were confirmed, however,” the Journal added — as if such a disclaimer were of much value after having offered up what proved to be wild and fanciful rumors.

The Washington Post of April 18, 1961, turned to wire service dispatches in compiling its first account of the invasion. It led with a United Press International report that breathlessly declared:

“Invading Cuban revolutionary troops, landed from the sea and dropped from planes, fought a bloody battle yesterday in the swamps 90 miles southeast of Havana and appeared to have knocked back Fidel Castro’s forces in the initial assault.

“There were reports that segments of the Cuban Navy had revolted.

“The revolutionary front directed by former Castro Premier Jose Miro Cardona in a secret United States headquarters was estimated to have thrown 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans into action in 48 hours on the east and south coasts.”

The Post’s report incorporated an Associated Press dispatch that said “the invaders hit the beaches in four of Cuba’s six provinces.”

Within weeks of the failed invasion, one of the leading journalists in America, James (“Scotty”) Reston of the New York Times, charged in a column that U.S. government officials and the CIA had fed reporters erroneous information about the assault on Cuba.

“When the landings started,” Reston wrote, “American reporters in Miami were told that this was an ‘invasion’ of around 5,000 men — this for the purpose of creating the impression among the Cuban people that they should rise up to support a sizable invasion force.

“When the landing … began to get in trouble, however,” Reston added, “officials here in Washington put out the story — this time to minimize the defeat in the minds of the American people — that there was no ‘invasion’ at all, but merely a landing of some 200-400 men to deliver supplies to anti-Castro guerrillas already in Cuba.

“Both times the press was debased for the Government’s purpose.”

Could be, but journalists amply demonstrated in their reporting that they were inclined to be gullible accomplices — eager at least to embrace wishful scenarios about the invasion. Official disinformation only partly explains the media credulity in reporting the Bay of Pigs.

News outlets bear a far heavier burden for botching the coverage.


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JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

JHistory, the listserv devoted to issues in journalism history, posted yesterday a very insightful and favorable review of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, saying it “should be required reading for journalism students as well as journalists and editors.”

Getting It Wrong “reinforces the necessity of healthy skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and viewpoints for probing, quality journalism,” the review says.

Getting It Wrong, which was published in summer 2010 by University of California Press, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths — those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

The reviewer for JHistory, Jeanette McVicker of SUNY-Fredonia, says Getting It Wrong is a “compelling book” that “generated a minor sensation in journalism circles all summer, with good reason.”

McVicker, whom I do not know, notes:

“In each chapter, Campbell delivers pithy, well-researched correctives for each sensational claim.

“No,” she writes, “Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds‘ radio broadcast did not induce a national panic in October 1938. Yes, there was symbolic bra burning in the Freedom Trash Can at the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, but no mass stripping of undergarments by wild women’s liberationists. No, the Kennedy administration did not request the New York Times to spike or delay a report on the imminent Bay of Pigs invasion: ‘utter fancy,’ Campbell writes.”

McVicker adds:

“The deconstruction of these cherished media myths by Campbell’s archival, source-driven research is praiseworthy, and makes for fascinating reading.”

She further notes:

“In most of these examples, the devastating legacy of the mythmaking media machine continues far beyond attempts to backpedal and correct the erroneous reporting: sensational stories tend to remain in public consciousness for years and sometimes decades.”


Getting It Wrong, McVicker adds, “demonstrates with tremendous force how discrete instances of media reporting and mythmaking have built up a golden age fallacy of journalism’s self-importance, and his work goes a long way toward deflating such heroic myths and consensus-narratives at the heart of modern journalism history.”

Her principal challenge to Getting It Wrong lies in my view that stripping away and debunking prominent media myths “enhances a case for limited news media influence. Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.”

Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence. … The influence of the news media is typically trumped by other forces.”

It’s an accurate assessment, especially given that media myths — such as the notion that investigative reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal — often seek to “ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners.”

Puncturing media myths thus serves to deflate the notion of sweeping media power.

McVicker tends to disagree, writing that “it is surely not the case that the combined effects of such narratives are ‘modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.'”

She notes as an example “the ongoing legacy of mainstream media’s failure to hold members of the Bush administration accountable during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, a devastating correlate to Campbell’s spot-on analysis of the distorted, erroneous reporting of what was happening in the streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.”

There is, though, a fair amount of evidence that the news media were neither gullible nor comatose in the run-up to the war in Iraq, that tough questions were raised of the Bush administration’s pre-war plans.

While the notion of a docile news media has hardened into conventional wisdom about the pre-war coverage, that view has been challenged, notably by David Gregory of NBC News, who has asserted:

“I think the questions were asked [in the run-up to the war].  I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.

“If there wasn’t a debate in this country” about going to war in Iraq, Gregory has said, “then maybe the American people should think about, why not?  Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate? Where was public opinion about the war?”

I find quite telling this observation, offered in 2007 by Reason magazine:

“The ‘we should have done more to head off this war’ arguments assumes too much, exaggerates the media’s power to influence, removes the onus from politicians and infantilizes news consumers. … many in the media did ask tough questions of the administration, but the public wasn’t paying much attention.”

That the news media were comatose in the run-up to the Iraq War may be yet another media-driven myth.


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book should be required reading for journalism students as well as

journalists and editors, for it reinforces the necessity of healthy

skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s

research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and

viewpoints for probing, quality journalism. There is an even greater lesson

here, however, pertinent for all readers: consistent with the rise of

“modern” journalism from the late 1800s to the present, the institution of

journalism has bolstered itself with narratives celebrating its own

strategic importance to society, even when the narratives turn out to be


Have a look: New trailer for ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

Check out the new trailer for my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–those dubious stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

As I say in narrating the trailer, media-driven myths can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism“–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not very nutritious.

The trailer, recently completed by research assistant Jeremiah N. Patterson, reviews the media myths related to the Watergate scandal, the purported Cronkite Moment, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A trailer prepared last year by Mariah Howell shortly before publication of Getting It Wrong remains accessible at YouTube.

Another YouTube video–prepared by Patterson in the fall to mark the anniversary of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast that supposedly was so realistic that it panicked America–also is accessible online. The video discusses Halloween’s greatest media myth.


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Media myths send ‘misleading’ message of media power

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 13, 2010 at 9:42 am

In this, the second of three installments drawn from Newsbusters‘ lengthy interview about Getting It Wrong, I discuss why it’s vital to debunk media-driven myths, those dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

This installment also includes a discussion about the flawed and over-the-top news coverage of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005.

The Newsbusters interview was conducted by Lachlan Markay, who described Getting It Wrong as “exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed.”

The third and final excerpt from the interview will be posted tomorrow at Media Myth Alert . The interview transcript is accessible here.

NEWSBUSTERS: So why, personally, do you feel that–you obviously feel it’s very important that these myths be exposed as myths. What’s the damage that these myths do if they carry on unquestioned?

CAMPBELL: I think one of the drawbacks [of media-driven myths] is that they … suggest power that the news media typically do not have. Media power in my view tends to be episodic, tends to be situational, nuanced, and it’s typically trumped by other forces and other factors. Government power, police power tend to overwhelm media power on an average basis in most circumstances.

But these stories–about [Walter] Cronkite, about [Edward] Murrow, about Watergate, about [William Randolph] Hearst, and some of the others in the book–typically send a message that the media have great power, to do good or to do harm.

They can start a war, they can end a war, they can alter the political landscape, they can even bring down a president–they’re that powerful. That’s absolutely a misleading message. It’s not how media power is applied or exerted, and that’s an important reason to debunk these myths.

There’s also some inherent importance too in trying to set the record straight to the extent you can. And in that regard, the book is aligned with the fundamental objective of journalism as practiced in this country, of getting it right, getting the story correct. …

NB: And some of the–the Katrina example comes to mind–some of the myths actually have to do with the media–not just a flawed or misleading understanding of events, but a completely fabricated, and made up and very destructive events sometimes. And I say Katrina because there were all these reports of gunfire in New Orleans, of dead bodies being piled up in the Superdome, none of which was true.

CAMPBELL: That’s right. …  Not only that, but the collective sense that those kinds of media reports gave about New Orleans–the place had just collapsed, the city and its people had collapsed into this sort of apocalyptic, Mad Max-like, nightmarish scene–and it served to besmirch the city and its citizens at the time of their direst need.

And that, I think, is just absolutely reprehensible. And that’s the message that we were getting [from the coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in early September 2005]. …

To the credit of the news media, they did go back –many of them, many of these news organizations–and took a look at how they got it wrong. But that tended to be a one-off kind of thing, and placed … inside the papers.

Broadcast media didn’t do much of this at all. … So even to this day, five years on, I still don’t believe the news media have taken full measure of the mistakes they made in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

The tendency is still to blame government–local, state, and certainly federal government–for an inept response. But the story was deeper than that, and it was more complex than that, and that’s the part that the news media got wrong.

NB: And of course one of the consequences of that misreporting was that, as you mention, the federal government especially bore a lot of the blame for what was happening there. And then you also have Murrow taking down perhaps the most notorious cold warrior in our country’s history, you have Cronkite as the standard-bearer for the left’s main cause during the 1960s, you have Woodward and Bernstein taking down a Republican president. Are there political factors at work here, do you think?

CAMPBELL: I think that some of the more enduring myths are those that have appeal across the political spectrum.

The Cronkite moment is one of them–it appeals because this is, for folks on the right, this is a real clear-cut example of how “the news media screwed us in Vietnam, and how they prevented us from winning the war there.” And on the left it’s an example of telling truth to power, and how Walter Cronkite was able to pierce … the nonsense, and make it clear to the Johnson administration that the policy in Vietnam was bankrupt.

Something for everyone.

End of part two

‘Getting It Wrong’ among 90 titles at NPC Book Fair

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Year studies on November 8, 2010 at 11:55 am

I will be among more than 90 authors signing and selling their recent books tomorrow evening at the annual National Press Club Book Fair and Authors’ Night.

My latest book, Getting It Wrong, will be among the titles at the Press Club event.

The book fair this year brings together a variety of authors, including one of my favorite journalism historians, Maurine Beasley of the University of Maryland; Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening To News, and Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a stricken passenger airliner on the Hudson River in January 2009.

The Book Fair is a fine occasion. I attended the event in 2006 and had a great time. My book at that event was The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.

Getting It Wrong, which came out during the summer, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. These are stories about and/or by the news media that widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

I liken them to the “junk food” of journalism–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not terribly healthy or nutritious.

The myths debunked in Getting It Wrong include some of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself, including:

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

I further write that Getting It Wrong “aligns itself with a central objective of newsgathering—that of seeking to get it right, of setting straight the record by offering searching reappraisals of some of the best-known stories journalism tells about itself.

“Given that truth-seeking is such a widely shared and animating value in American journalism,” I add, “it is a bit odd that so little effort has been made over the years to revisit, scrutinize, and verify these stories. But then, journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

I point out that media myths take hold for a variety of reasons: Because they delicious stories that are almost too good not to be true; because they are reductive in offering simplistic interpretations of complex historical events, and because they are self-flattering in that they place journalists at the decisive center of important developments.

The Book Fair opens at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free for members, and $5 for non-members.


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‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘PJM Political’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on October 10, 2010 at 10:24 am

I had a fine interview recently with Silicon Valley blogger Ed Driscoll for the Pajamas Media radio show, PJM Political.

The interview aired yesterday on Sirus-XM radio’s POTUS channel.

Topic: My new book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Driscoll, who conducts a thoughtful and well-prepared interview, led me through a discussion of several myths addressed in Getting It Wrong, including the Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

That was when, supposedly, the on-air analysis of CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite prompted President Lyndon Johnson to change his thinking about the Vietnam War and led him to decide against seeking reelection.

“That’s simply not true,” I pointed out. “Lyndon Johnson didn’t even see the [Cronkite] program when it aired in February 1968. And his decision not to seek reelection was driven by other forces and factors. Cronkite really was irrelevant to that equation, to that decision.

“But yet it lives on, as an example of media power, the media telling truth to power. And it’s a misleading interpretation, it’s a misreading of history.”

Driscoll said that the chapters of Getting It Wrong “have a sort of curious” set of bookends, in that they begin with a discussion of William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain and end with a look at the exaggerated, over-the-top coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

“Was this sort of book-ending intentional?” Driscoll asked.

It was an insightful question–and the first time an interviewer had asked about the book’s conceptual component.

I noted that the “original framework of the book had it organized more thematically, by ‘media and war’ and ‘media and government,'” and so on.

That framework was discarded, I said, “for a more chronological approach. So the bookends were driven more by chronology than anything else.”

We discussed how Orson Welles‘ cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, helped cement the “furnish the war” myth in the public’s consciousness. Kane includes a scene that paraphrases Hearst’s purported vow.

The “furnish-the-war” anecdote about Hearst is dubious in many respects, I said, adding:

“Yet it lives on as an example of Hearst as the war-monger, as an example of the media–at its most malignant, in an extreme–can bring about a war that the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.”

I mentioned how media-driven myths can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism,” which prompted Driscoll to ask:

What’s wrong with the American people being fed a little junk food? What’s wrong with being fed a few media myths?

There are several reasons, I replied.

Notably, “these myths tend to misrepresent the role of the news media in American society. They tend to grant the news media far more power and far more influence than they really do exert in American life.”

I added:

“Most people believe the media are powerful agents and powerful entities and often refer to some of the myths that I address, and debunk, in Getting It Wrong. They refer to them in support of this mistaken notion.”

In wrapping up the interview, Driscoll referred to Media Myth Alert as “a nifty blog.”

It was a generous plug that was much appreciated.


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On the high plateau of media distrust

In 1897, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on September 30, 2010 at 10:22 am

A Gallup poll released yesterday suggested that distrust of the news media has reached a high plateau among American adults.

Fifty-seven percent of Gallup’s respondents, the most ever, said they had little or no trust in the “mass media … when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” A year ago, the little-to-no trust response rate was 55 percent; in 2008 it was 56 percent.

As Andrew Malcolm noted at his engaging Top of the Ticket blog, the new “record high” in media distrust was reached “by one lousy percentage point.”

Even so, there’s little comfort in having reached such a plateau. And the factors accounting for a pronounced level of popular distrust are several–and hardly unfamiliar.

Surely one reason is that it’s commonplace to bad-mouth the news media as unreliable and unfair. Media-bashing has long been in fashion–and the news media are prone to beat up on themselves, and their rivals.

A commentary posted yesterday at the Atlantic blog put it well in saying that “media voices increasingly distinguish themselves by telling us not to trust the rest of the mainstream media. Think about all of the mass media today that tells us how stupid mass media is.”

True enough. That has to have an effect.

But the news media have long indulged in aiming brickbats and insults at one another. For the news media, media-bashing has long been an irresistible pasttime.

The ever-appealing and often-invoked epithet “yellow journalism” dates after all to 1897–and the efforts of a New York newspaper editor to find a pithy and imaginative way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Traditional and new, the media are everywhere these days and their ubiquity no doubt fosters some disdain and contempt. A hint of that contempt can be detected in the recent Pew Research Center’s news-consumption survey, which reported that 17 percent of American adults go newsless on a typical day.

Although the news media are everywhere, a sizable portion of the population has little use for them.

Going newsless can’t be easily accomplished, given the variety of readily accessible platforms by which news is delivered. But the going-newsless option is especially pronounced among American adults younger than 30: Pew’s report said 27 percent of that cohort gets no news on a typical day.

The prominent and well-documented fabrication scandals of several years ago doubt have contributed to the plateau of media distrust. The journalistic fraud committed by Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, among others, surely has left a bad taste for the media among many news consumers.

The inclination to distrust the media surely was reinforced by the highly exaggerated news coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in 2005.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks prominent media-driven myths, the Katrina coverage was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism. … 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.”

And that reporting was steeped in error.

The fifth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall was an occasion to revisit just how shoddy the news coverage was in the storm’s aftermath. And that anniversary fell shortly before Gallup conducted its annual media-trust survey.

Gallup said 1,019 adults were interviewed by telephone in a random survey conducted September 13-16. (The sampling error was plus or minus four percentage points, meaning the level of distrust could be as great as 61 percent, or as narrow as 53 percent.)

Mundane factors probably contribute to the plateau of distrust as well. Staff cuts at many U.S. newspaper, including the unsung heroes manning copy desks, have been blamed for an increase grammar, spelling, and factual errors.

It’s not that newspapers ever were mostly free of such lapses. Anecdotally at least, they seem more frequent and conspicuous. The ombudsman, or reader’s representative, at the Washington Post suggested as much last year in writing that growing numbers of readers were calling on him “to complain about typos and small errors” appearing in the newspaper.

And it’s become a cliché to say that such small-bore errors undermine credibility–or, perhaps more accurately, encourage media distrust.

And then there is the matter of limited viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms, a point I raise in Getting It Wrong.

Few journalists for mainstream national media “consider themselves politically conservative,” I note, referring to surveys conducted in 2004 and 2008 for the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists. The surveys found that the overwhelming majority of national correspondents for U.S. news media considered themselves to be politically “moderate” or “liberal.”

Interestingly, Gallup reported that “Democrats and liberals remain far more likely than other political and ideological groups to trust the media and to perceive no bias.”

Viewpoint diversity in newsrooms “is an issue not much discussed in American journalism,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But it is hardly irrelevant.”

Especially when distrust of the news media has found such a high plateau.


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