W. Joseph Campbell

‘Exquisitely researched and lively’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Reviews on September 16, 2010 at 9:40 am

That’s the Denver Post‘s take on Getting It Wrong, my new book on media-driven myths which the newspaper recently reviewed.

The Post offers a discerning summary of the book, noting that it “takes a critical look at 10 stories that were either total fabrications or blown way out of proportion and yet became part of our popular culture.”

It also says Getting It Wrong offers “an exquisitely researched and lively look at an industry that too often shines the light on itself more than it does on events and public figures.”

And it notes, quite correctly:

“Much of the ‘wrong’ coverage through the years comes from the media’s self-congratulatory preening.”

The review points out that the sternest criticism in Getting It Wrong is reserved “for coverage, mainly by television, of the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

“Hyperactive reporters told tales of snipers roaming the streets, ‘hundreds’ of bodies stacked up in the Super Dome and babies being raped and murdered, none of which could be verified.

The upshot of the exaggerated coverage of the storm’s aftermath, the review notes, “was that rescue operations were hindered by fear, and prejudices of a watching public against poor people and minorities were confirmed.”

The review was written by Dick Kreck, a former reporter and columnist for the Post who has written three books. Kreck is an engaging storyteller and the go-to source for details about the lusty history of Denver journalism. (Full disclosure: Kreck spoke at a program at the Denver Post during last month’s convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Convention. I helped organize the program.)

Kreck opens the review of Getting It Wrong by declaring:

“Memo to media: Get over yourself. You’re not that important.”

He later cites a passage in Getting It Wrong quoting Robert Samuelson, a columnist who writes on economic issues for the Washington Post:

“Because the media are everywhere—and inspire much resentment—their influence is routinely exaggerated. The mistake is confusing visibility with power and the media are often complicit in the confusion. We [in the news media] embrace the mythology, because it flatters our self-importance.”

Getting It Wrong indeed offers a brief for modest media effects.

To bust media myths, I write in the book, “is to confront the reality that the news media are not the powerful agents they, and many others, assume them to be.

“It is exceedingly rare for any news report to trigger a powerful, immediate and decisive reaction akin to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported response to [Walter] Cronkite’s televised assessment about Vietnam: ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite ….’

“Researchers long ago dismissed the notion the news media can create such profound and immediate effects, as if absorbing media messages were akin to receiving potent drugs via a hypodermic needle,” I note, adding:

“Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.” And typically trumped by other, more powerful forces and factors.

WJC

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