W. Joseph Campbell

Cinema and the tenacity of media myths

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Watergate myth on January 17, 2010 at 12:41 pm

What explains the tenacity of many are media-driven myths? Why are many of them so resistant to debunking?

One important factor, and one that I explore in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, is high-quality cinematic treatment of popular media-centered stories.

The notion that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and  Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was cemented by the 1976 motion picture, All the President’s Men. The movie was based on the reporters’ bestselling book by the same name, which appeared in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was nearing its dénouement with Nixon’s resignation.

The misguided, mediacentric view that Edward R. Murrow’s reporting in 1954 abruptly ended the communists-in-government witchhunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy is another myth that the cinema has solidified.

McCarthy in 1954 (Library of Congress)

Getting It Wrong describes how Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy” and how “he did so only after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”

As I further write in Getting It Wrong, the Murrow-McCarthy myth “was sealed for another generation with the release in 2005 of Good Night, and Good Luck,” a movie that offered a dramatic version of the back story to Murrow’s See It Now program on McCarthy.

See It Now was Murrow’s weekly, news-oriented documentary program on CBS; the 30-minute show on McCarthy and his tactics aired March 9, 1954. Supposedly, it was so compelling that it stopped the demagogic senator in his tracks.

While Good Night, and Good Luck never explicitly said as much, it lent just that impression—that Murrow courageously and single-handedly ended McCarthy’s reign of terror. That’s how many critics interpreted Good Night, and Good Luck, and that view was reiterated recently in a post at the “Irish Central” online site.

The post described Good Night and Good Luck as telling “the story of ace reporter Edward Murrow who brought down the great witch hunter Joe McCarthy” and praised the movie’s director-star, George Clooney. (Clooney played the role of a slightly pudgy, ever-earnest Fred Friendly, Murrow’s producer.)

That post is an example of just how ingrained the Murrow-McCarthy myth has become — and how effectively high-quality cinematic treatments can be in hardening media myths against debunking.

The cinema is far from the only factor accounting for the tenacity of media myths.

But because movies can powerfully influence how historical events are collectively remembered, they lengthen the odds that some media-driven myths can ever be rolled back.

WJC

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