W. Joseph Campbell

Media myths, the ‘junk food of journalism’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Media-driven myths, the subject of my soon-to-be-published book, Getting It Wrong, are prominent tales of doubtful authenticity—false, dubious, or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The  myths addressed and debunked in the book include the notion that two intrepid reporters for the Washington Post took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency, that Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now television program brought an end to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt, and that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst vowed to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

“In a way,” I write in Getting It Wrong, media myths “are the junk food of journalism—alluring and delicious, perhaps, but not especially wholesome or nourishing.”

But why bother: Why devote a book to debunking media-driven myths?

It’s a question that, somewhat to my surprise, arises not infrequently.

Several answers offer themselves.

For one, there is inherent value is seeking to set straight the historical record. As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the effort to dismantle [media myths] is certainly worthy, if only to insist on a demarcation between fact and fiction.” That effort is aligned with a core objective of newsgathering—that of getting it right.

Media-driven myths, moreover, are neither trivial nor innocuous. They can have adverse consequences. They tend, for example, to minimize the nuance and complexity of historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. It’s effortless and undemanding to say the Washington Post brought down Nixon, that Murrow ended McCarthyism, or that Hearst plunged the United States into war with Spain. The historical reality in each of those cases is, of course, significantly more complex.

So media-driven myths distort popular understanding about the roles and functions of journalism in American society. They tend to confer on the news media far more power and influence than they typically wield.

Media influence, I write in the book, usually “is trumped by other forces” and further undercut by the traditional self-view of American journalists as messengers first, rather than as makers and shapers of news.

What’s more, the news media these days are too splintered and diverse—print, broadcast, cable, satellite, online—to exert much in the way of collective and sustained influence on policymakers or media audiences.

Thus, debunking media-driven myths can help to locate media influence in a more coherent context. Getting It Wrong offers the case that such influence tends to modest, nuanced, and situational.

There are occasions, though, when the splintered news media coalesce and devote exceptionally intense attention to a single topic—such as Hurricane Katrina’s rampage along the Gulf Coast nearly five years ago. The news media gave themselves high marks for their coverage of the disaster’s aftermath, especially of the federal government’s fitful response.

But as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the coverage also was characterized by highly exaggerated reports of nightmarish violence and wanton criminality in New Orleans in the hurricane’s wake. The misreporting of the disaster’s aftermath, I write, effectively “defamed a battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.”

Thus, another reason why debunking matters—media-driven myths can and do feed prejudices and stereotypes.

Finally, confronting media myths discourages the tendency to regard prominent journalists in extreme terms—as heroes or villains. Piercing the myth surrounding Murrow renders him somewhat less Olympian. Similarly, debunking the myth about Hearst and his purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain makes him seem less manipulative, and less demonic.

Getting It Wrong is a work with a provocative edge. Given that it takes on some of the most treasured stories in American journalism, it could not be otherwise.

WJC

This post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

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