W. Joseph Campbell

‘Getting It Wrong’ plays the Tattered Cover

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 7, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Denver’s well-known Tattered Cover bookstore was the venue last night for a fine discussion about Getting It Wrong, my new book that addresses and debunks 10 prominent, media-driven myths.

At the Tattered Cover

About 60 people attended the book event, at least a few of whom had learned about it in listening to my in-studio interview Friday morning with David Sirota on KKZN, AM 760, Denver’s progressive talk radio station.

At the Tattered Cover, one of the country’s top independent bookstores, I discussed the myths of Watergate, of the “Cronkite Moment,” of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain, and of the famous War of Worlds radio dramatization of  1938.

Those stories, I noted, are “all well-known—they are often taught in schools, colleges, and universities. They’re all delicious tales about the power of the news media to bring about change, for good or ill.”

And I proceeded to explain why all of them are media-driven myths–dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual. “They can be thought of as the junk food of journalism,” I noted. “Tasty and alluring, perhaps, but in the end, not terribly healthy or nutritious.”

The surprise of the evening came in discussing the mythical “Cronkite Moment,” in which President Lyndon Johnson supposedly realized U.S. policy in Vietnam was doomed, given the on-air assessment by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite that the war was “mired in stalemate.”

Among the reasons the “Cronkite Moment” is a media myth, I said, is that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program on Vietnam when it aired on February 27,  1968.

Johnson was not in Washington; he was not in front of a television set. He was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, who that day turned 51.

“At about the time Cronkite was intoning his ‘mired in stalemate’ commentary,” I said at the Tattered Cover, “Johnson was at the podium at Connally’s birthday party, saying: ‘Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.'”

And with that, the audience burst into laughter.

Never before had the line prompted so many laughs. For some reason last night, it did.

The audience was attentive and inquisitive. Questions were raised about the media myth associated with coverage of the Jessica Lynch case and of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast five years ago this month.

Another question was about the cinema’s capacity to promote and propel media myths. It was a good observation, one that I wished I had emphasized earlier in my talk.

A telling example of the how cinematic can solidify media myths is to be found in the 1976 film All the President’s Men, an adaptation of the book by the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward about their Watergate reporting.

As I write in Getting It Wrong the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “helped ensure the [heroic-journalist] myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

I noted in my talk that Bernstein and Woodward did not uncover the defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the burglars arrested at Democratic national headquarters in June 1972, the signal crime of Watergate. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office, which proved decisive in forcing the president’s resignation.

The Tattered Cover was a wonderful venue–comfortable, inviting. Its staff is exceptionally courteous and professional, and the hour-and-a-half went by extremely quickly.

WJC

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Photo credit: Ann-Marie C. Regan

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