Journalism is a profession built on storytelling, so it’s no surprise that its history is filled with some remarkable tales. Think Woodward and Bernstein bringing down a president. Or Walter Cronkite’s 1968 CBS News special about Vietnam that caused President Lyndon Johnson to exclaim, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Think of Edward R. Murrow demolishing Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt on television, or William Randolph Hearst telling his correspondent in Cuba, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
Great stories, all of them. If only they were built on facts—the other thing our profession is supposed to revere. W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University and respected journalism scholar, smashes the above media-driven myths, along with a few more, in his new book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism. (The book launches tomorrow with an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Campbell also writes a related blog.)
“These are stories about and by news media that are widely believed and often recalled … that prove to be either apocryphal or wildly exaggerated upon close inspection,” he says. “… Some of them just never sounded quite right and when I had a chance to investigate and check into them there were so many reason why they were probably not true.”
He says the ten myths he chose to investigate are popular and powerful for two reasons.
“There’s a variety of reasons but I think they all centre around two components in many ways: Media power for good or bad, and complexity avoidance,” he says. “These are simplistic stories that help us understand the past.”
Or misunderstand, as it were. Campbell’s previous books, Yellow Journalism and The Year That Defined American Journalism, offered thoroughly researched looks at two important eras in American journalism. One interesting section of Yellow Journalism took on the legendary Hearst message and determined that it was likely never sent. Campbell’s latest work combines historical media-driven myths with recent tales, such as the story of Jessica Lynch and the reports of crack babies that flowered in the press in the 1980s. Here’s a list of the ten myths he punctures in this book:
Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” is almost certainly apocryphal.
War of Worlds: The notion that the War of Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 caused nationwide panic and mass hysteria is exaggerated.
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.
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.
Cronkite-Johnson: Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment of U.S. war policy.
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.
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.
Crack babies: The much-feared “bio-underclass” of children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies never materialized.
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.
Hurricane Katrina: News coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in early September 2005 was marred by wild exaggerations of extreme, Mad Max-like violence.
Campbell says one common thread among them relates to the press itself.
“The notion of media power both for good, as in the Watergate example, or for bad, as in the William Randolph Hearst example, is one of the driving forces behind media myths,” he says. “The notion that the media are important and one of the central forces, and decisive forces, in our society is an important factor as to why these things take hold and live on.”
Every society needs heroes and villains, and stories that help forge identity and community. That’s why myths exist in the first place. But the press has the ability and means to shape and disseminate the tales of champions and villains, to create and propagate stories that reinforce role and identity. Media-driven myths are particularly powerful, which in turn makes them even harder to debunk.
“The simplicity factor is another related reason [why these myths endure],” says Campbell. “These myths tend to negate complexity in historical events. They offer a simplified, straightforward easily remember version of what went on in the past.”
In many cases, they also offer lessons in how journalists can go wrong. Mistakes made in the early stages of a story can create a myth, and then it’s the willingness of other journalists to repeat the core elements of a myth that help spread and install it in the collective consciousness.
“I think especially for more some of the recent myths, such as crack babies, Jessica Lynch and Hurricane Katrina, in each of those cases we saw a breakdown of some of the fundamental approaches to journalism,” Campbell says.
Though his book is more concerned with documenting and debunking media-made myths than offering a prescription for avoiding future ones, he does have some advice to offer.
“Check it out, be skeptical,” is some basic advice for reporters. But he also thinks we need to change the newsroom culture and ensure there’s a diversity of viewpoints inside newsrooms.
“There is room for a newsroom culture that embraces diverse viewpoints, and I think that will help encourage skepticism … and negate the groupthink that tends to take hold in newsroom culture,” he says. “Challenging the dominant narrative and encouraging contrarian thinking is a good thing.”
Correction of the Week
“A June 9 KidsPost article on interesting things about the English language said that the words “scissors,” “binoculars” and “tongs” exist only as plurals. ‘Scissor’ exists as a verb, and it can be used as a noun to mean scissors. ‘Binocular’ is an adjective. ‘Tong’ is a verb, and also a noun referring to certain types of Chinese organizations.” – The Washington Post
Correction: The first paragraph of this article originally mentioned that Edward R. Murrow is credited with demolishing Senator Eugene McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. This was incorrect. What with his political activism, poetry writing, and multiple Presidential candidacies, Eugene McCarthy had very little time for witch hunts of any sort. The demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy was the McCarthy we meant to mention. Other than a last name and Midwestern roots, the two men had very little in common. CJR regrets the error.