W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles’

‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, New York Times, War of the Worlds on January 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

The New York Times considers in a commentary posted yesterday the prospect of “digital wildfires” — how rumor and error spread by social media could give rise to panic and widespread turmoil.

It’s a catchy phrase, “digital wildfires.” But the commentary is largely speculative and, worse, it conjures the panic myth of the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization of October 30, 1938.

“In 1938,” the commentary declares, “thousands of Americans famously mistook a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel ‘War of the Worlds’ for a genuine news broadcast. Police stations were flooded with calls from citizens who believed the United States had been invaded by Martians. …

“Is it conceivable that a misleading post on social media could spark a comparable panic?”

What “panic”?

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio program of October 30, 1938, set off a wildfire of panic is a hoary media myth — a myth so tenaciously held that not even a sustained social media campaign could undo it.

Like many media myths, the tale of the panic broadcast of 1938 is just too engrained, and too delicious, ever to be uprooted and delivered to the ash heap of history. As the Times commentary suggests, it’s an irresistible story, full of  illustrative potential.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “the notion that The War of the Worlds program sent untold thousands of people into the streets in panic, is a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But most listeners — in overwhelming numbers — recognized the dramatization for what it was, an imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

This conclusion is based on research by Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist, who studied the program’s aftermath. His research, while crude by contemporary standards, drew on interviews and a public opinion survey to estimate that at least 6 million people listened to The War of the Worlds program.

Of that number, Cantril estimated as many as 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard.

But Cantril did not specify what he meant by “frightened,” “disturbed,” and “excited” — terms not synonymous with “panic-stricken.”

As  Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions, has noted, there is scant evidence that many frightened listeners acted on their fears.

In short, what radio-induced fright there was that night did not rise to the level of broad panic or hysteria.

Had it — had panic swept the country — trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides. But none were linked to the program, as Michael J. Socolow noted in his fine essay in 2008.

The Times commentary notes that authorities “were flooded with calls” that night. Indeed, telephone volume surged during and immediately after the program, especially in metropolitan New York and New Jersey — ground zero for the fictive Martian invasion in The War of the Worlds show.

Police station, fire departments, and many newspaper offices reported receiving an unusually large number of telephone calls.

But call volume is a crude, and even misleading, marker of fear and alarm.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, increased call volume that night is better understood as “signaling an altogether rational response of people who neither panicked nor became hysterical, but who sought confirmation or clarification from external sources known to be usually reliable.”

Interestingly, the notion that a radio show did create panic gave newspapers an irresistible opportunity to assail their upstart rival medium.

By the late 1930s, radio was an increasingly important source for news and advertising, and American newspapers thus had, as I write, “competitive incentives to denounce radio, and characterize it as irresponsible and unreliable.

“Many newspapers seized the chance to do with enthusiasm. It was as an opportunity they could not fail to let pass.”

The New York Times, for example, declared in an editorial titled “Terror by Radio”:

“Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

The Times and other American newspapers in 1938 seemed to delight in chastising radio. And their overwhelmingly negative commentary helped seal the erroneous view that The War of the Worlds dramatization had set off panic and mass hysteria.


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The Internet’s uneven capacity to expose media fakes

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on July 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the online magazine Salon, hailed yesterday the corrective capacity of the Internet, noting how quickly a purported column by Bill Keller, one-time executive editor of the New York Times, was exposed over the weekend as an imaginative fake.

In pressing the argument, though, Greenwald offered up a hoary media myth that has survived quite well in the age of the Internet.

Greenwald wrote: “For anyone who still believes that traditional journalism is inherently more reliable than the Internet, just … compare the duration and seriousness of the frauds and fakes enabled by the model of traditional journalism.

“Long before the Internet — in 1938 — a dramatized radio broadcast by Orson Wells [sic] (“The War of the Worlds”) of Martians landing on Earth spawned mass panic.”

The notion that The War of the Worlds radio dramatization set off “mass panic” is a delicious tale.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, it’s also a tenacious media-driven myth “that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

I point out that “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.”

Some people who listened to the show in 1938 were frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But there is no evidence their fright rose to anything approaching “mass panic” or nationwide hysteria.

Indeed, most listeners recognized Welles’ program for what it was— an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.

But newspaper reports the following day advanced the notion that “mass panic” had swept the country.

“These reports,” I point out, “were almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

But newspapers in 1938 “simply had no reliable way of testing or ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims they made about the radio show,” I write.

Nonetheless, the purported “panic-broadcast” offered U.S. newspapers “an exceptional and irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio — then an increasingly important rival source for news and advertising — as unreliable and untrustworthy,” I write.

The overwhelmingly negative commentary in the American press, helped frame and solidify the erroneous impression that The War of the Worlds dramatization had sown mass panic and hysteria.

The debunking of the myth is told not only in Getting It WrongI’ve blogged about the dubious “panic broadcast,” too, as posts here, here, here, and here indicate. I’ve also written about The War of the Worlds myth for the BBC online. Others have discussed the myth in blog posts as well, notably Michael Socolow in a fine dissection in 2008.

So why does the myth live on in the digital age? Why is it resistant to the Internet’s capacity, which Greenwald extols, to detect errors and swiftly banish them?

Obviously, the notion of the “panic broadcast” became entrenched in media lore long before the digital age. Indeed, it began taking dimension the day after Welles’ clever show.

Once a myth becomes thoroughly entrenched, it may be beyond the Internet’s power ever  to dismantle. (See also, William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain; the supposed “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the misleading dominant narrative of Watergate.)

What’s more, the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were abruptly pitched into “mass panic” one night long ago remains a perversely appealing and irresistible tale. Its retelling affirms in a way the reassuring view that Americans these days are hardly the gullible rubes their ancestors were, back when broadcast media was emergent.

The mythical “panic broadcast” also offers a timeless anecdote with which to bash the media. The tale, after all, does suggest that when circumstances are just so, the media can spread fear and disruption, profoundly and unexpectedly.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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The ‘War of the Worlds’ radio show produced a ‘Paul Revere effect’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio on October 31, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I call it the “Paul Revere” effect, and it helps explain the many reports of fright associated with the radio dramatization 73 years ago of The War of the Worlds, a clever program that told of a lethal Martian invasion of Earth.

The radio show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly stirred panic and hysteria across the United States — a delicious narrative that I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, as a media-driven myth.

I also discuss in Getting It Wrong the seldom-examined “Paul Revere effect” associated with The War of the Worlds program, which was the work of Orson Welles and his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” troupe.

This effect occurred when well-intentioned people who had little more than an incomplete understanding of The War of the Worlds broadcast decided individually and on their own to warn others about what they thought was a sudden and terrible threat.

These self-motivated Paul Reveres, I write in Getting It Wrong, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near.”

I note that it must “have been a cruel and unnerving way of receiving word of a supposedly calamitous event — to be abruptly disturbed in familiar settings by a vague reports offered by people who themselves clearly were terror-stricken.”

The unsuspecting recipients of these invariably garbled, second- and third-hand accounts of calamity had no immediate way of verifying the wrenching news they had heard. Unlike the audiences of Welles’ dramatization, they could not spin the radio dial to find out whether other networks were reporting an invasion from Mars.

Scrutiny of contemporaneous newspaper accounts reveals numerous cases of this false-alarm contagion. This meant that people who had not heard not a word of The War of the Worlds show were themselves fearstricken, if only briefly.

In New York, for example, some apartment houses “were hurriedly emptied by frantic listeners to the program and by those who heard second- and third-hand accounts multiplying the supposed peril,” the Newark Star-Eagle reported.

“Many of the panic-stricken did not hear the original broadcast but got their misinformation from others,” the newspaper said.

A Methodist church service in Indianapolis was disrupted that night “when an hysterical woman member of the congregation entered shortly after worship had begun,” the Indianapolis Star reported.

The woman rushed to the pulpit, telling the pastor, “Something so terrible has happened that I must interfere.”

She told worshippers that “New York has been destroyed” and added: “I believe the end of the world has come. I heard it over the radio.”

The pastor offered a short prayer and excused anyone who wanted to return home. Several members of the choir “doffed robes and went from the church, followed by a portion of the congregation,” the Star reported. But the service continued.

Soon, several members of the congregation returned, explaining sheepishly that the alarm had been caused by nothing more than a misunderstood radio show.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, it is impossible to estimate the cumulative effect of the false-alarm contagion that night. But the second- and third-hand accounts, spread Paul Revere-like, stirred some measure of evanescent apprehension among untold thousands of people who had not listened to the program.

It is tempting to suggest, I write, “that what radio-induced fear there was that night was mostly spread by credulous people who heard muddled and fragmentary accounts about the program and set about to alert others,” on their own.


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Why the ‘panic broadcast’ myth lives on

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

It’s a delicious media myth that The War of the Worlds radio dramatization 73 years ago set off nationwide panic and mass hysteria — a media myth that lives on for an impressive variety of reasons.

Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

What has been called the “panic broadcast” aired on CBS radio on Sunday evening, October 30, 1938. The War of the Worlds dramatization starred and was directed by Orson Welles, a 23-year-old prodigy. He was supported by actors of his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” troupe.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the dramatization supposedly was so alarming and realistic in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays, that listeners by the tens of thousands — or perhaps the hundreds of thousands — were convulsed in panic.

That, at least, is how American newspapers reported the reaction to the broadcast.

“A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners throughout the nation,” the New York Times said on its front page of October 31, 1938.

“For an hour,” the Washington Post declared, “hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself.”

But the panic and hysteria so commonly associated with The War of the Worlds show was hyped. Exaggerated. It did not on anything approaching nationwide scale, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong.

Sure, some listeners may have been frightened or disturbed by what they heard. But that’s hardly synonymous with being panicked or pitched into mass hysteria.

Most listeners of the show, overwhelmingly, were not frightened. They recognized it for what it was, a clever and imaginative radio play on the eve of Halloween.

Nonetheless, the “panic broadcast” occupies an extraordinary place in American media history; it lives on as the radio show that caused fright and terror beyond measure.

A prominent reason is that the tale of panic and hysteria is almost too good, too delicious not to be true.

In that way, the “panic broadcast” is like many media myths — a savory, intriguing tale that never loses appeal. The War of the Worlds radio myth, of course, is especially popular this time of year.

Moreover, the “panic broadcast” myth endures because it evokes the latent power of media content:  Media messages have the potential to produce effects that are unpredictable, wide-ranging, and even dangerous.

The myth also lives on because it offers implicit reassurance for contemporary media audiences: It reminds and reassures them of their comparative sophistication. Back then, back in the 1930s, media audiences were pretty gullible, as the panicked reactions to The War of the Worlds suggest. But that’s not so much the case today, this line of thinking goes (which overlooks such recent stunts as the Colorado balloon boy and the TV report of the breakup of Belgium).

Another powerful explanation for the tenacity of The War of the Worlds myth is found in its link to the legend and bad-boy image of Orson Welles, who gained lasting fame and acclaim with his 1941 cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

The “panic broadcast” helped confirm the talent and reputation of Welles, who did his most memorable work before he was 30.

Interestingly, Welles appeared at what he called “a terrifying mass press interview” the day after the “panic broadcast” to say he regretted “any misapprehension which our broadcast last night created among some listeners.”

Welles, who was unshaven and acted a bit contrite, insisted it was unfathomable anyone really could have mistaken The War of the Worlds radio dramatization for an alien invasion.

Welles told reporters that he was “extremely surprised to learn that a story which has become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories should have had such an immediate and profound effect upon radio listeners.”

Years later, however, Welles was only too eager to endorse the notion that the broadcast had stirred wide panic. He gleefully told an interviewer:

“Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis, there was wailing in the street and the rending of garments.”


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‘Kane’ at 70: ‘More relevant than ever’?

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments on September 10, 2011 at 9:53 am

In the year of its 70th anniversary, Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane “is more relevant than ever,” says a polished, thoughtful essay posted yesterday at TechCentral, a South African site devoted to technology news and reviews.

Orson Welles in 'Kane'

In pressing the point about Kane’s relevance, the essay argues:

“Newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, sitting in his already-crumbling but unfinished Xanadu, is Colonel Gaddafi railing at the Libyan rebels from his exile or a doddering Rupert Murdoch stumbling over his words in front of the commission investigating the News of the World scandal.”

Those are telling observations, particularly the reference to the 80-year-old Murdoch and his excruciating, hapless performance before a Parliamentary commission hearing in July in London.

“Today,” the TechCentral essay adds, “you’ll see Citizen Kane’s influence in the strangest places,” including parodies in The Simpsons” television show.

As superb and influential as it was, Kane took liberties and in doing so helped popularize a powerful media-driven myth.

The movie was released in 1941 and was based loosely on the life and times of American media magnate William Randolph Hearst.

A rollicking scene early in Kane offers clear evidence that Hearst was the movie’s principal inspiration; the scene paraphrased Hearst’s purported vow, which he supposedly cabled to an artist in Cuba months before the Spanish-American War:

You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that scene in Kane “firmly and finally pressed Hearst’s purported vow to ‘furnish the war’ into the public’s consciousness.”

I also point out in Getting It Wrong that the anecdote about Hearst’s vow “is almost too good not to be true” and note that the “furnish the war” line “has made its way into countless textbooks of journalism.

“It [also] has figured in innumerable discussions about Hearst and about the news media and war. It has been repeated over the years by no small number of journalists, scholars, and critics of the news media such as Ben Bagdikian, Helen Thomas, Nicholas Lemann, and the late David Halberstam.”

Interestingly, “furnish the war” endures despite a near-total absence of supporting documentation. It lives on even though cable containing Hearst’s purported vow has never turned up.

It lives on even though Hearst denied ever sending such a message.

It lives on despite of what I call “an irreconcilable internal inconsistency”: It would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule — was the very reason Hearst sent the artist, Frederic Remington, to Cuba in the first place.

And Remington’s trip to Cuba came in January 1897 — more than 15 months before the start of the Spanish-American War.

Kane is no faithful portrait of Hearst.

As David Nasaw pointed out in The Chief, his admirably even-handed biographyof Hearst:

“Welles’ Kane is a cartoon-like caricature of a man who is hollowed out on the inside, forlorn, defeated, solitary because he cannot command the total obedience … of those around him. Hearst, to the contrary, never regarded himself as a failure, never recognized defeat, never stopped loving Marion [his mistress] or his wife.

“He did not, at the end of his life, run away from the world to entomb himself in a vast, gloomy, art-choked hermitage,” as portrayed in Citizen Kane.


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Area 51 book offers implausible, myth-based tale

In Debunking, Media myths, War of the Worlds on May 21, 2011 at 6:45 am

I had a chance yesterday to thumb through Area 51, Annie Jacobsen’s provocative new book, which says Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was behind the crash-landing of an alien-like spacecraft in New Mexico in 1947, in a one-off bid to sow panic in America — much like the fright supposedly caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

I found Jacobsen’s speculative claim as absurd and far-fetched as it is implausible.

It’s based on a single, unnamed source, and it draws sustenance from a media-driven myth.

According to Jacobsen, the strange craft contained children who had been “biologically and/or surgically reengineered” to look like space aliens, with large eyes and large heads.  “Stalin sent … the craft over New Mexico hoping it would land there,” she writes, adding:

“Stalin’s plan was for the children to climb out and be mistaken for visitors from Mars. Panic would ensue, just like it did after the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.”

Oh, right. Sure.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension” when it aired October 30, 1938.

While some Americans may have been briefly frightened or disturbed by the program, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Had the radio program — which starred and was directed by Orson Welles — provoked widespread panic and hysteria, newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. As it was, though, newspapers dropped the overblown story after only a day or two.

Significantly, no deaths, serious injuries, or suicides were associated with Welles’ program. Had panic and hysteria indeed swept the country that night in 1938, many people surely would have been killed and badly injured in the tumult.

The War of the Worlds radio dramatization aired on a Sunday from 8-9 p.m. (Eastern), when most newspaper newsrooms were thinly staffed.

Reporting on the reactions to The War of The Worlds broadcast posed no small challenge for morning newspapers with tight deadlines.

“Given the constraints of time and staffing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “relying on wire services such as the Associated Press became essential. This dependency, in turn, had the effect of promoting and deepening the notion that panic was widespread that night: On a late-breaking story of uncertain dimension and severity, many newspapers took their lead from wire service dispatches.

“They had little choice.”

The AP’s reports about the program essentially were roundups of reactions culled from the agency’s bureaus across the country, I write. Typically, AP roundups emphasized sweep — pithy, anecdotal reports quickly gathered from many places — over depth and searching detail.

The anecdotes about people frightened by the show tended to be sketchy, shallow, small-bore. But their scope contributed to a mistaken sense that radio-inspired fear was widespread that night.

The reliance on superficial wire service roundups helps explain the consensus among U.S. newspapers that the broadcast had created a lot of fright, even mass panic.

Stalin  may well have had intelligence resources to have known that, to have understood that U.S. news reports of mass panic and widespread hysteria following The War of the Worlds broadcast had been exaggerated.

Jacobsen’s far-fetched claim falters on another point: Why would sending bizarre-looking aviators to thinly populated, postwar New Mexico have created panic across the United States?

Rural New Mexico would have been among the least likely places in the country for Stalin to have deployed a mission to stir panic in the United States. Especially since the aviators were not armed with the kind of lethal heat rays that the invading Martians wielded in The War of the Worlds story.


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

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

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

So true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or something along those lines. Versions vary markedly.

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

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

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

Shafer wrote early last year:

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

He added:

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

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

Irrepressible myths, all.


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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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Mythbusting at the Smithsonian

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

A fine crowd was on hand last night for my book talk at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center about media-driven myths.

The talk was part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program, which organized the event superbly well.

During the talk, I reviewed three of the 10 media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong: the heroic-journalist myth that has become the most popular narrative of the Watergate scandal; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize the futility of the war effort in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 that purportedly pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

I also offered a few suggestions about identifying and sidestepping media myths, suggestions that included being skeptical about turns of phrase that just sound too neat and tidy–almost too good to be true. Another bit of advice was to apply logic and healthy skepticism to extravagant claims about the news media and their presumed influence.

Questions and comments from the audience of 170 or so people were especially thoughtful.

One comment was about the notion the famous New York City blackout in November 1965 was followed nine months later by an uptick in births–a linkage suggested in reports by the New York Times in August 1966. The Times quoted a sociologist as saying then:

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other.”

Though not addressed in Getting It Wrong, it is an intriguing topic, one that could be considered in a sequel about media myths, I said.

I added that the blackout tale sounded a lot like more recent speculation that the major snowstorms along the East Coast in December 2009 and February 2010 would give rise to an increase in live births nine months later. A blizzard baby boom, as it were.

That correlation may be mythical, though.

Still, the notion there is such a linkage isn’t entirely far-fetched. It rests on the cusp of plausibility–as do many media myths addressed in Getting It Wrong, I said.

I also noted during the Q-and-A session that media myths that have appeal across the political spectrum can be especially tenacious and enduring. They are tales, I said, that offer something for everyone.

The “crack baby” scare of the late 1980s and 1990s is an example of a media-driven narrative that offered something for everyone.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The crack baby was a rare social issue that had appeal across the political spectrum—appeal that made the phenomenon especially powerful, compelling, notable, and tenacious. For conservatives, the specter of crack babies underscored the importance of imposing stiff penalties in the country’s war on drugs. And penalties were stiffened for crack possession during the second half of the 1980s. For liberals, meanwhile, crack babies represented an opportunity to press for costly assistance programs aimed at helping crack users and their children.”

“Crack babies” were children born to women who had taken cocaine during pregnancy, and many news reports and commentaries predicted an epidemic of crack-damaged misfits.

Among the more overheated predictions was that of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote in 1989:

“The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.”

Krauthammer likened the crack-induced “bio-underclass” to a “biologically determined underclass of the underclass.”

But it never happened.

The crack baby phenomenon turned out to be the epidemic that wasn’t, the product of over-the-top, anecdote-driven news reporting.


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