W. Joseph Campbell

‘Persuasive and entertaining': WSJ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Reviews, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 12, 2010 at 6:05 am

Today’s Wall Street Journal reviews Getting It Wrong, characterizing as “persuasive and entertaining” my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths.

The review–which appears beneath the headline “Too good to check”–is clever and engaging, and opens this way:

“Hello, city desk, get me rewrite. Here’s the lead: Many of the landmark moments in American journalism are carefully nurtured myths—or, worse, outright fabrications.

“William Randolph Hearst never said, ‘You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.’ Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast didn’t panic America. Ed Murrow’s ‘See It Now’ TV show didn’t destroy Sen. Joseph McCarthy. JFK didn’t talk the New York Times into spiking its scoop on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Far from being the first hero of the Iraq War, captured Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was caught sobbing ‘Oh, God help us’ and never fired a shot.

“These fables and more are lovingly undressed in W. Joseph Campbell’s persuasive and entertaining ‘Getting It Wrong.’ With old-school academic detachment, Mr. Campbell, a communications professor at American University, shows how the fog of war, the warp of ideology and muffled skepticism can transmute base journalism into golden legend.”

The reviewer, Edward Kosner, author of the memoir It’s News to Me, also discusses the myth of the “Cronkite Moment,” writing, “Television icons are central to two of Mr. Campbell’s dubious cases: Murrow and his successor as the patron saint of TV news, Walter Cronkite.”

Kosner notes–as I do in Getting It Wrong–that at least some of the myths confronted in the book will likely survive their debunking.

“For all Mr. Campbell’s earnest scholarship,” Kosner writes, “these media myths are certain to survive his efforts to slay them. Journalism can’t help itself—it loves and perpetuates its sacred legends of evil power-mongers, courageous underdogs, dread plagues and human folly.”

Well said.

And, alas, he may be right. Some of the myths almost certainly will live on. As I write in the introduction to Getting It Wrong, they “may prove resistant to debunking. They may still be widely believed despite the contrary evidence marshaled against them.

“The most resilient myths,” I further write, “may be those that can be distilled to a catchy, pithy phrase like: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Such quotations are neat, tidy, and easily remembered. Cinematic treatments influence how historical events are collectively remembered and can harden media-driven myths against debunking. The motion picture All the President’s Men, which cast Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the lead roles of Washington Post reporters [B0b] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein, has helped ensure that the journalists and their newspaper would be regarded as central to cracking the Watergate scandal.”

Kosner closes the review with a humorous observation, writing:

“At the end of the book, Mr. Campbell offers some remedies for media mythologizing, urging journalists, among other things, ‘to deepen their appreciation of complexity and ambiguity.’ Good luck with that, professor.'”

Heh, heh. Nice touch.

WJC

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