W. Joseph Campbell

‘Regret the Error’ considers ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Reviews, Watergate myth on June 18, 2010 at 6:41 pm

Craig Silverman’s latest “Regret the Error” column, posted today at the Columbia Journalism Review online site, offers a searching discussion of my new book, Getting It Wrong, and notes, insightfully:

“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.”

Silverman is the author of the well-received 2007 book, Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. His column discussing Getting It Wrong begins this way:

“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 [Joe] 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.’

McCarthy

“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.”

About the emergence of media-driven myths, Silverman quotes me as saying:

“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.”

Indeed. Media myths, I write in Getting It Wrong, often stem from “an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do and tend to extend credit where credit is not entirely due.”

I further note in the book that media myths can “be self-flattering, offering heroes … to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

Silverman’s column wraps up by considering how to combat media-driven myths, quoting me as underscoring the importance of viewpoint diversity in American media 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 quotes me as saying.

“Challenging the dominant narrative and encouraging contrarian thinking is a good thing.”

On that point, I write in Getting It Wrong:

“It is certainly not inconceivable that a robust newsroom culture that embraces viewpoint diversity, encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassing tales such as the Washington Post’s ‘fighting to the death‘ story about Jessica Lynch.”

WJC

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