W. Joseph Campbell

On media myths and the ‘golden age’ fallacy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 11, 2010 at 11:49 am

Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate and Washington Post fame, offered a thoughtful observation recently about investigative reporting and the notion that its best days were long ago.

Bernstein said an interview “there’s a little too much nostalgia about maybe a golden age of ‘investigative journalism’ that never really existed.”

That “golden age” sometimes is associated with the post-Watergate era, when investigative reporting, and teams of investigative reporters, flourished at American newspapers.

Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media writer, indulged in this fallacy a few years ago, writing about a “golden glow” that Bernstein and his Watergate reporting colleague Bob Woodward supposedly cast across the news business in the mid-1970s.

“Newspapermen became cinematic heroes,” Kurtz wrote, adding that they were “determined diggers who advanced the cause of truth by meeting shadowy sources in parking garages, and journalism schools were flooded with aspiring sleuths and crusaders.

“But the media’s reputation since then has sunk like a stone….”

The notion there was a “golden age” of journalism or of investigative reporting is as alluring as it is misleading. And the “golden age fallacy” contributes to the tenacity of media-driven myths, those dubious and improbable tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

I address the fallacy in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate as well as nine other prominent tales about the news media.

I note in Getting It Wrong how  “media myths invite indulgence in the ‘golden age fallacy,’ the flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring—the time, say, of Murrow or Cronkite, or Woodward and Bernstein.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the heroic contributions of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite often have been overstated.

The “golden age fallacy” in the case of Woodward and Bernstein certainly was deepened and solidified with the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, their 1974 book about reporting on Watergate. The roles of Woodward and Bernstein were played, respectively, by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

“Such is the power of movies,” Frank Rich of the New York Times once noted, that the first image ‘Watergate’ brings to mind [more than] three decades later is not Richard Nixon so much as the golden duo of Redford and Hoffman riding to the nation’s rescue in ‘All the President’s Men.'”

True enough.

And while it is not specifically discussed in Getting It Wrong, another fallacy helps account for the appeal and tenacity of media-driven myths. And that is what the venerable historian David Hackett Fischer has called the “telescopic fallacy”–the urge to make a long story short.

“This form of error is common today,” Fischer wrote 40 years ago in his influential work, Historians’ Fallacies, “and likely to become still more so, as historians become increasingly interested in putting big questions to little tests.”

The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is, in a way, a representation of the “telescopic fallacy.” That interpretation compresses the details and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal into a readily understood, digestible package that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

However, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

WJC

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