W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Journalism education’

Appealing across generations of students: The Verne Edwards Mystique

In Journalism education, Newspapers on November 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm

The following is an expansion of remarks I offered yesterday, at a memorial service in Delaware, Ohio, for Verne E. Edwards, my undergraduate journalism professor and mentor who died this month at 90-years-old. I dedicated my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, to Edwards, who for 33 years taught journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University.


Verne Edwards, mid-1970s

How was it that Verne Edwards commanded such respect, such reverence, across generations of students?

He was a professor known for rigorous expectations — and sometimes-stern appraisals. I remember writing a headline for the student newspaper, the Transcript, that referred to Mount Union College (now University of Mount Union) as “Mount Vernon.”

In his weekly markup of the Transcript, Verne circled the errant headline in red pencil and identified it as the worst he had ever seen.

Verne was exacting, and could be quirky; he sometimes addressed his classes in a sidelong manner, not making much eye contact. But he was tough, and honest, and fair. And his students tended to feel terrible when they believed they had let him down. As in mistaking Mount Union for Mount Vernon.

The question of Verne Edwards’ appeal across generations has personal dimension and relevance: I have taught at American University for 17 years and know few faculty who command the kind of respect, indeed the reverence, that Verne so clearly won from generations of students. I have puzzled about the qualities and attributes that gained for Verne Edwards such esteem.

It is a puzzle; I call it the Verne Edwards Mystique, and I cannot claim to have fathomed all its sources.

The Verne Edwards Mystique surely sprang, in measure, from the authority borne of high standards and relevant experience. Verne was a print journalist. At one time or another, he wrote editorials or edited copy at such newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Toledo Blade. He wrote the textbook, too — Journalism in a Free Society, which he required in his classes for years.

It was little exaggeration that Ohio Wesleyan’s journalism program was known, to some of us, as “Vernalism.”

The Verne Edwards Mystique was rooted, too, in a deep and abiding interest in students, and a dedication to staying in touch. Verne would keep up on the accomplishments of his former students, and would welcome them back to campus.

Year after year, for many years, Verne prepared an annual alumni newsletter that he filled with details and updates about his students from across the generations. His newsletter was a highlight of the end-of-year holidays. And it created bonds among his former students, even for those who had never met one another.

What may best explain the Verne Edwards Mystique, though, is modesty, a decided modesty.

Verne was no self-promoter. He could have been, surely, given the awards and the recognition he received during his career. But his ego was kept under wraps and under control; his was a modesty that’s rather rare in the academy.

Students sensed that, too. Verne, they knew, was the real deal. And he didn’t flaunt it.


More from Media Myth Alert:

Blogging about journalism history: Why, and why bother?

In Debunking, Media myths on August 10, 2011 at 6:44 am

Journalism historians who blog.

It seems a little oxymoronic.

After all, isn’t journalism history a little too fusty, a little too musty, and a little too obscure to be readily adapted to contemporary social media such as blogging?

One might reflexively think so.

But a panel of four journalism historians who blog will discuss why they do so at a panel in St. Louis this afternoon, during the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

The panel, titled “We blog about journalism history: Why, and why bother,” will consider the value of injecting historical dimension into contemporary debates and critiques about the performance of  news media, both traditional and online.

I’ll moderate and participate on the panel, which will bring together Chris Daly of Boston University, Karen Russell of the University of Georgia, and James McPherson of Whitworth College.

I intend to point out how blogging about journalism history can offer relevant and valuable context to the blogosphere’s never-ending debates about media performance. Journalism historians can bring to those debates perspective and analysis that would otherwise be missing or overlooked.

I also expect to note there are personal reasons for blogging as well. By blogging, journalism historians can test emergent ideas and hypotheses. Blogging can reinforce (and direct attention to) previously published work — much as Media Myth Alert seeks to do in promoting my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths.

Blogging is a way to call out media myths. After all, as historian Gerard DeGroot has pointed out, “The good historian is a mythbuster.”

Blogging also allows journalism historians to take the steps toward developing larger, more detailed works, a point suggested several years ago in an intriguing blog post by Timothy Burke about why historians blog.

Among other points, Burke said he writes online essays because “I want to find out how much of my scholarly work is usefully translatable into a wider public conversation.”

Blogging about journalism history can have pedagogical value and impact far beyond the blogger’s expectations and knowledge. As such, blog posts about topics in journalism history may greatly expand the reach and application of a scholar’s research.

So it promises to be lively, the AEJMC blogging panel, which convenes at 1:30 p.m. in the Landmark #1 meeting room of the Renaissance Grand and Suites Hotel in St. Louis.

Panel-goers are invited to live-Tweet the proceedings, and use the Twitter hashtags #AEJMCblogging and #AEJMC11.


Recent and related:

That’s rich: Woodward bemoans celebrity journalism

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 24, 2011 at 11:33 am

The country’s foremost celebrity journalist, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post and Watergate fame, has deplored what he called the “curse” of celebrity journalism, which he reportedly said has infected the news media.

Woodward, celebrity journalist

Woodward was speaking the other night at a panel in Austin, Texas, that was convened to mark the 35th anniversary of All the President’s Men, the motion picture about the Watergate reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.

According to a report posted online by ABC News, Bernstein, who also was on the panel, complained that the culture of journalism has shifted dramatically since the Watergate era of the early 1970s. Woodward, according to the ABC post, characterized this shift the “curse” of celebrity journalism — the “Paris Hilton factor and Kardashian equation.”

Even if he was referring to excessive media attention to the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, it’s still pretty rich for Woodward to bemoan celebrity journalism — given that All the President’s Men established the cult of the contemporary celebrity journalist.

By “celebrity journalist,” I mean the journalist who has attained outsize prominence or who is regarded as more important than the people and the events he or she covers.

Sydney Schanberg, writing in the Village Voice in 2005, pointed out that the Watergate era of the early 1970s “can be fairly marked as the starting point of the age of journalists as celebrities. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein weren’t celebrities when they cracked the story for The Washington Post, but they soon would be, and a wave of emulators quickly began applying to journalism schools.”

Schanberg was incorrect about the Watergate effect on journalism schools: The surge in enrollments was well underway before Watergate, before Woodward and Bernstein became household names.

But he was quite correct about Watergate’s having represented a demarcation of modern celebrity journalism. (Alicia Shepard referred to this phenomenon in 1997, writing in American Journalism Review in 1997: “The Watergate affair changed journalism in many ways, not the least of which was by launching the era of the journalist as celebrity.” She also claimed in the article that Woodward and Bernstein “brought down a president.” Not so.)

More than any other single factor, the movie All the President’s Men propelled the media myth of the heroic journalist — the beguiling notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal exposed the corruption of Richard Nixon and forced his resignation in disgrace in 1974.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my media-mythbusting book that came out last year, All the President’s Men placed the characters of Woodward and Bernstein squarely if inappropriately “at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

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

The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate has become “the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity,” I note in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the notion Woodward and Bernstein “exposed Nixon’s corruption is a favored theme in textbooks of journalism and mass communication.” And that offers a wholly inaccurate misleading reading of the history of Watergate.

Woodward and Bernstein didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That was the effect of the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of the Justice Department, the FBI, special Watergate prosecutors, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Against that tableau, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

Recent and related:

Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 9, 2011 at 7:41 am

The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center dedicated to “teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders,” offered up a myth of Watergate yesterday in an article that ruminated about Lady Gaga’s potential to “awaken her young fans to 21st century journalism.”

Gaga: Inspiring?

The Poynter piece discussed the, ahem, news that pop star Gaga would guest-edit the May 17 editions of the giveaway newspaper Metro. The freesheet is available in many large cities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Metro was launched by a Swedish company in 1995.

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is not so much Lady Gaga’s one-off editing adventure but the Poynter article’s reference to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, lead Washington Post reporters on the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

The article stated:

“As Lady Gaga takes her celebrity into the worlds of journalism and photography, does it bring cachet to a struggling and confused industry that might need a tad of glamour and inspiration? She certainly has encouraged her fans to blog, create videos and design costumes.

“In the 1970s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired a generation to major in journalism and become investigative reporters. … Could Lady Gaga awaken her young fans to 21st century journalism?”


The notion that the work of Woodward and Bernstein “inspired a generation” of journalism students is a persistent subsidiary myth of Watergate.

There’s no evidence to support it.

I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that the subsidiary myth “lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

One study was financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995. In it, researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf reported finding that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Becker and Graf added:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

Seven years earlier, Maxwell E. McCombs reported in the Gannett Center Journal that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972. That also was the year Woodward and Bernstein published the investigative reports about Watergate that won for the Post the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service.

McCombs, a veteran mass communication scholar, further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

The appeal of the subsidiary myth, I write in Getting It Wrong, stems from the fact that it is so “easily understood: It endures because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward—too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

That is, Woodward and Bernstein made journalism seem sexy, vital, urgent. They were, after all, subjects of a major motion picture, All the President’s Men, which was based on their best-selling book by the same title.

And their reporting did bring down a corrupt president.

Or so goes the central myth of Watergate — that of the heroic-journalist. The heroic-journalist meme holds that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes and misdeeds of Richard Nixon’s presidency, forcing him from office.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, not even the Post buys into that simplistic interpretation of American journalism’s greatest political scandal.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth,” I write, noting:

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces typically wielded subpoenas and included special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Justice Department, and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”


My thanks to LittleMissAttila for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on February 17, 2011 at 7:37 am

Did he say it?

I’ve written occasionally at Media Myth Alert about a suspect quotation attributed to broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow.

Here’s the quotation:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

The quotation is half true. That is, the first part was indeed spoken by Murrow; the other part is just too good to be true.

I happened to find the full quotation posted at the welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

By email, I asked the dean, Lawrence Pintak, what he could tell me about the quote’s provenance.

I noted in my email that the first portion  of the passage – “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” – was spoken by Murrow near the end of his 1954 See It Now program about the witch-hunting ways of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.

“But the rest of quotation – ‘When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it’ – was not spoken during that program,” I noted in my email. I added that “I’ve not been able to determine where and when it was spoken or written.”

I further noted that I had consulted a database of historical newspapers — a full-text repository that includes the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times — but no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage were returned.

I also mentioned in my email that a search of the LexisNexis database “produced a few returns, but none dated before 2001.” None of them state where and when Murrow made the purported comment.

Pintak, who became the first dean of the Murrow College in 2009, stated in reply that the online site had been constructed before his arrival at Washington State. He added:

“My suspicion is that the site was built by the university marketing comm. people and they may well have just pulled it from the web, rather than original source. If it’s not correct, we certainly need to get it pulled.”

He referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty, Paul Mark Wadleigh, whom he asked to investigate.

A few hours later, Wadleigh sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While it seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

Wadleigh also wrote that the transcript of Murrow’s closing comments in the 1954 show about McCarthy “reveals a different language and tone than the ‘loyal opposition’ quote.”

Good point.

His bottom line?

“I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this,” Wadleigh wrote.

By the end of the day, the suspect quote had been pulled from the dean’s welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remains posted there.

The College’s move to pull the quote not only was commendable; it stands as further evidence that the “loyal opposition” line attributed to Murrow is dubious. It may have been made up well after Murrow’s death in 1965, perhaps to score points politically.

I’ve noted that if it were genuine, if Murrow had uttered the line, then its derivation shouldn’t be too difficult to determine.

Moreover, the quotation seems too neat and tidy to be authentic — which can be a marker of a media-driven myth.

As I write in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

“To thwart media myths, journalists can start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as [William Randolph] Hearst’s vow to ‘furnish the war‘ and even to euphonic phrases such as ‘bra burning.’

“Turns of phrase that sound too neat and tidy,” I write, “often are too perfect to be true.”


Recent and related:

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.


Recent and related:



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


WaPo journo on Jessica Lynch story rejoins paper

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post on January 6, 2011 at 8:50 am

Vernon Loeb, one of the Washington Post reporters who in 2003 wrote the botched story about Jessica Lynch’s purported battlefield heroics in Iraq, is returning to the newspaper as its local editor.

Washington Post, April 3, 2003

The electrifying but erroneous story about Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, turned her into the single most recognizable soldier of the Iraq War.

In a front-page report published April 3, 2003, the Post anonymously cited “U.S. officials” in saying that Lynch “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit in southern Iraq, that she had “shot several enemy soldiers,” and that she had fired her weapon “until she ran out of ammunition.”

But the hero-warrior narrative–published beneath the bylines of Loeb and Susan Schmidt–was untrue.

Lynch did not fire her weapon in the ambush. Nor was she shot and stabbed, as the Post reported.

I examine the Lynch case in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, noting how the Post account of her supposed derring-do “became a classic illustration of intermedia agenda-setting: News organizations around the world followed the Post’s lead by prominently reporting the supposed heroics of young Jessica Lynch and contemplating their significance.”

Not surprisingly, the Post in announcing yesterday that Loeb was returning neither mentioned nor hinted at his role in reporting the Lynch story. The Post memo did describe Loeb as “a tremendously talented, high-energy journalist, whose enthusiasm for what we do is infectious.

“In his new job, he will drive our coverage of the region, ensuring we are serving our readers, both print and digital, the smartest, freshest and most authoritative news and features on the issues that matter most to them. It’s a good match: this is a highly competitive market, and Vernon is an intensely competitive editor.”

The memo also said Loeb has run marathons and is an ardent fan of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. (The DCist blog noted that Loeb’s Twitter account has been silent for several months.)

Loeb returns to the Post on February 1, following a stint as deputy managing editor for news at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He had left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times.

I once tried to speak with Loeb about the Lynch case. I called him at the Inquirer in 2008, while I was researching Getting It Wrong; he abruptly hung up on me.

I wanted to ask Loeb about the sources behind the Lynch story. I also wanted to ask him about the interview he gave to the NPR Fresh Air show in late 2003, during which he said the Pentagon was not the source for the Post story.

In the years since, the dominant narrative has become that the Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch’s heroics and fed it to the Post in order to boost American support for the war.

But in the interview on Fresh Air, Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case.

“They wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch,” Loeb said on the show.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” he added. “I mean …they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

Moreover, he declared:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb described them as “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington, D.C.

And he added:

“We wrote a story that turned out to be wrong because intelligence information we were given was wrong. That happens quite often.”

And yet, the false narrative about the Pentagon’s having made up the story about Lynch’s heroics endures, and has become dominant. It fits well with a curdled popular view about the war in Iraq.

I’ve called before at Media Myth Alert for the Post to knock down the false narrative about the Lynch case and disclose the identify of its sources on that story.

If they weren’t “Pentagon sources,” then who were the “U.S. officials” who supplied the erroneous account about Lynch? Why should they be continue to be protected with anonymity, given that they clearly provided inaccurate information?

Loeb should say, especially since his new job at the Post will include “ensuring [that] we are serving our readers” in an “authoritative” way.


Recent and related:

‘Commentary’ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

The June 2010 number of Commentary magazine includes a fine, favorable, and thoughtful review of Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths.

The reviewer, Andrew Ferguson, who writes the “Press Man” column for Commentary, says of Getting It Wrong:

“It may be the best book about journalism in recent memory; it is certainly the most subversive.”

A wonderful, telling line, that.

He also writes:

“Campbell does what journalists, and most journalism professors, seldom think to do when they exchange the oft-repeated tales: he checks them out. And through a pitiless accretion of detail, he dissolves them one by one.

“As he reveals, Edward R. Murrow did not ‘bring down Joe McCarthy’ with his famous 1954 episode of See It Now; Campbell looked up the poll numbers and found that McCarthy’s favorability ratings were in free fall well before Murrow took to the air.

“No, Cronkite did not turn the public against the Vietnam War with an on-air editorial in February 1968: five months earlier, Gallup had registered that a plurality of Americans, 47 percent, agreed that the war was a mistake.

“And no, Woodward and Bernstein were not responsible for uncovering the entirety of the Watergate scandal; as reporters, they had pretty much run out of scoops by October 1972, when congressional investigators, criminal prosecutors, and other newspapers took over the story and drove it till President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

“And no, the bestselling author David Halberstam, who promoted each of these stories with unfailing pomposity, was not a reliable chronicler of even the most recent past.”

Ferguson wraps up his review by writing:

“Journalism’s myths about journalism, you’ll notice, are self-aggrandizing. They cast the journalist as hero. No wonder they’re so popular… among journalists. We warm ourselves by such tales, draw compensation and comfort from them, which is why they’re taught in our trade schools as elements of basic training.”



Embedded myths of journalism history

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 15, 2010 at 11:44 am

Popular media myths were in circulation over the weekend at the conference of journalism historians—signaling anew how embedded myths are in American media history and how difficult they can be to uproot.

One presentation at the conference in New York City discussed Walter Cronkite’s standing in collective American memory and in media history. The presentation inevitably invoked the notion that the Cronkite’s on-air commentary in 1968 dissuaded Lyndon Johnson from seeking reelection to the presidency.

Supposedly, Johnson watched Cronkite’s special report on CBS about Vietnam. Cronkite ended the program with by saying the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations eventually might be considered as a way out of the conflict.

Upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat editorial assessment, Johnson switched off the television and turned to an aide or aides, muttering something to the effect of:

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

The program’s effect supposedly was so singularly powerful that it also turned public opinion against the war and came to be called the “Cronkite Moment.”

As I’ve noted several times at MediaMythAlert, and as I write in Getting It Wrong, my  forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam when it aired February 27, 1968.

Johnson in Texas, February 27, 1968

Johnson at the time was not in front of a television set but on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, at a party marking the 51st birthday of one of his political allies, Governor John Connally.

Nor is there evidence that Johnson later saw the Cronkite program on videotape.

Not only that, but as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, there is scant evidence to suggest that the “Cronkite Moment” had much influence at all on public opinion about the war.

Indeed, polling data “clearly show that American sentiment had begun shifting months before the Cronkite program,” I write in the book, which will be out this summer.

Also heard during conference presentations was what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–the notion that the reporting of two young reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

This is a trope that even Post officials have dismissed over the years.

In 2005, for example, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The heroic-journalist myth is addressed, and debunked, in Getting It Wrong, which says that interpreting Watergate “through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

The conference in New York was Saturday, and was sponsored by the History Division of AEJMC and the American Journalism Historians Association. AEJMC is the acronym for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.


Gleanings from the conference

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on March 14, 2010 at 6:41 pm

My paper about the media myths surrounding the case of Jessica Lynch, the Army private whom the Washington Post lifted from obscurity early in the Iraq War, stirred a fair amount of comment and questions at yesterday’s conference of journalism historians in New York.

That’s hardly surprising given that the paper—which is drawn from a chapter in Getting It Wrong,  my forthcoming book about media-driven myths—challenges the dominant narrative about the Lynch case that the Pentagon supposedly made up the account of her supposed heroics on the battlefield.

Her heroics were reported on the Post‘s front page April 3, 2003.

The newspaper said Lynch, then 19, had “fought fiercely” in the ambush of her unit, the 507th Maintenance Company, in Nasiriyah in southeastern Iraq. The Post article cited unnamed “U.S. officials” in reporting that Lynch had “shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed” her unit, “firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition.”

One official was quoted anonymously as saying: “‘She was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.’” Lynch was taken prisoner and nine days later rescued from an Iraqi hospital by a U.S. Special Operations team.

The Post’s story about Lynch’s derring-do was electrifying–and picked up by news organizations around the world.

It soon proved to be almost entirely in error.

Lynch hadn’t “fought fiercely.” She had never fired her weapon.

She suffered shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as she and others in the 507th fled the ambush.

Soon enough, though, the dominant narrative about the Lynch saga took shape: The Pentagon had concocted the hero-warrior story in order to boost support back home.

But as I noted during my presentation yesterday, Vernon Loeb, one of the Post reporters who shared a byline on the “Fighting to the Death” story said late in 2003 that the Pentagon was not the source for that report.

I also noted that the Pentagon hardly would have been desperate to boost morale back home: Just before Lynch’s rescue, support for the Iraq War was topping 70 percent, according to opinion polls in the United States.

One of the questions raised at the conference yesterday was: If the military wasn’t the source, then who gave the Post the story?

It’s a fair question, and I noted that Loeb and other reporters on the story have never disclosed their sources, beyond citing the otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials.” I also pointed out that they had reported the hero-warrior story about Lynch from Washington, and that no journalists were with Lynch and her unit during the ambush in Iraq.

Not surprisingly, the crucial element of mistaken identity in the Lynch saga stirred little comment from yesterday’s audience.

The hoopla stirred by the Post‘s story about Lynch had the effect of obscuring the recognition of a real hero of the ambush. He was Sergeant Donald Walters, a cook in the 507th who did fight to the death at Nasiriyah.

As his unit tried to flee the ambush, Walters stayed behind, laying down covering fire. When his ammunition ran out, Walters was captured and, shortly afterward, executed.

But when they became known, Walters’ actions on the battlefield attracted scant interest among the American news media.

The daylong conference was sponsored by the History Division of AEJMC and the American Journalism Historians Association. AEJMC is the acronym for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.


%d bloggers like this: