W. Joseph Campbell

‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, War of the Worlds, Watergate myth on August 4, 2010 at 8:47 am

My interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN’s Q&A program aired Sunday evening and early Monday–and the show looked better on the tube than I thought it would.

The interview was taped two weeks earlier and, afterward, I didn’t feel that it had gone all that well.

But I was mistaken.

Lamb, who is a real gentleman and is supported by a courteous and highly professional staff, led me through a brief discussion of each of the 10 prominent tales about American journalism which I address and debunk in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

We subsequently zeroed in on the myths of Watergate, Murrow-McCarthy, the Cronkite Moment, and the War of the Worlds radio dramatization.

Toward the end of the interview, which lasted nearly an hour, Lamb asked what might be next in my research. Maybe a sequel to Getting It Wrong, I replied, adding that universe of media-driven myths isn’t confined to the 10 addressed in the book.

Lamb

Lamb, who had read Getting It Wrong closely, surprised me a few times with his questions, including his query about this passage in the book’s closing chapter:

“American journalism loves giving prizes—to its own.”

That passage (which is true, of course) was a way of setting up the conclusion to the chapter discussing the highly exaggerated, over-the-top news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which battered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast five years ago this month.

Among the many awards given for reporting about the hurricane was the Mongerson Prize for Investigative Reporting on the News. That award, I note in Getting It Wrong, “was initiated in 2001 to recognize journalists who set the record straight on inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading news stories. The Mongerson Prize was administered by Northwestern University and had a five-year run. It never attracted much attention, certainly nothing approaching the prominence of the Murrow Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes.”

The Mongerson Prize was given for the last time in 2006 and the winners that year were Brian Thevenot and Gordon Russell of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. They were honored for the report they prepared in late September 2005 that examined exaggerated accounts of mayhem in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Four weeks after the storm,” Thevenot and Russell wrote, “few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of murdered bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines assert that, while anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.”

In announcing the winners, Northwestern said Thevenot and Russell had “exposed the dangers of pack journalism in a difficult reporting environment.”

A telling point.

I write in Getting It Wrong that Katrina’s aftermath “was no high, heroic moment in American journalism. The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

“None of those reports was verified or substantiated: No shots fired at rescue helicopters, no child rape victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood, no sharks.”

Thevenot’s candor about the Katrina coverage was refreshing, in measure because he acknowledged that he, too, had gotten it wrong in some of his reporting.

In an article for American Journalism Review titled “Mythmaking in New Orleans,” Thevenot wrote that “in the worst of the storm reporting, tales of violence, rapes, murders and other mayhem were simply stated as fact with no attribution at all.

“I am among those who committed this sin,” he conceded, referring to his description of the Convention Center in New Orleans, where many people dispossessed by the hurricane took refuge, as “a nightly scene of murders, rapes and regular stampedes.”

WJC

Related:

None of those reports was verified or substantiated: No shots fired at rescue helicopters,[i] no child rape victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood, no sharks


[i] See A Failure of Initiative, 169.

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