W. Joseph Campbell

JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 7, 2011 at 9:51 am

JHistory, the listserv devoted to issues in journalism history, posted yesterday a very insightful and favorable review of my latest book, Getting It Wrong, saying it “should be required reading for journalism students as well as journalists and editors.”

Getting It Wrong “reinforces the necessity of healthy skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and viewpoints for probing, quality journalism,” the review says.

Getting It Wrong, which was published in summer 2010 by University of California Press, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths — those dubious tales about and/or by the news media that masquerade as factual.

The reviewer for JHistory, Jeanette McVicker of SUNY-Fredonia, says Getting It Wrong is a “compelling book” that “generated a minor sensation in journalism circles all summer, with good reason.”

McVicker, whom I do not know, notes:

“In each chapter, Campbell delivers pithy, well-researched correctives for each sensational claim.

“No,” she writes, “Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds‘ radio broadcast did not induce a national panic in October 1938. Yes, there was symbolic bra burning in the Freedom Trash Can at the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, but no mass stripping of undergarments by wild women’s liberationists. No, the Kennedy administration did not request the New York Times to spike or delay a report on the imminent Bay of Pigs invasion: ‘utter fancy,’ Campbell writes.”

McVicker adds:

“The deconstruction of these cherished media myths by Campbell’s archival, source-driven research is praiseworthy, and makes for fascinating reading.”

She further notes:

“In most of these examples, the devastating legacy of the mythmaking media machine continues far beyond attempts to backpedal and correct the erroneous reporting: sensational stories tend to remain in public consciousness for years and sometimes decades.”

Indeed.

Getting It Wrong, McVicker adds, “demonstrates with tremendous force how discrete instances of media reporting and mythmaking have built up a golden age fallacy of journalism’s self-importance, and his work goes a long way toward deflating such heroic myths and consensus-narratives at the heart of modern journalism history.”

Her principal challenge to Getting It Wrong lies in my view that stripping away and debunking prominent media myths “enhances a case for limited news media influence. Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.”

Too often, I write, “the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence. … The influence of the news media is typically trumped by other forces.”

It’s an accurate assessment, especially given that media myths — such as the notion that investigative reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal — often seek to “ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners.”

Puncturing media myths thus serves to deflate the notion of sweeping media power.

McVicker tends to disagree, writing that “it is surely not the case that the combined effects of such narratives are ‘modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational.’”

She notes as an example “the ongoing legacy of mainstream media’s failure to hold members of the Bush administration accountable during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, a devastating correlate to Campbell’s spot-on analysis of the distorted, erroneous reporting of what was happening in the streets of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.”

There is, though, a fair amount of evidence that the news media were neither gullible nor comatose in the run-up to the war in Iraq, that tough questions were raised of the Bush administration’s pre-war plans.

While the notion of a docile news media has hardened into conventional wisdom about the pre-war coverage, that view has been challenged, notably by David Gregory of NBC News, who has asserted:

“I think the questions were asked [in the run-up to the war].  I think we pushed. I think we prodded. I think we challenged the president. I think not only those of us the White House press corps did that, but others in the rest of the landscape of the media did that.

“If there wasn’t a debate in this country” about going to war in Iraq, Gregory has said, “then maybe the American people should think about, why not?  Where was Congress? Where was the House? Where was the Senate? Where was public opinion about the war?”

I find quite telling this observation, offered in 2007 by Reason magazine:

“The ‘we should have done more to head off this war’ arguments assumes too much, exaggerates the media’s power to influence, removes the onus from politicians and infantilizes news consumers. … many in the media did ask tough questions of the administration, but the public wasn’t paying much attention.”

That the news media were comatose in the run-up to the Iraq War may be yet another media-driven myth.

WJC

Recent and related:

 

Campbell’s

book should be required reading for journalism students as well as

journalists and editors, for it reinforces the necessity of healthy

skepticism; a commitment to fully understanding the implications of one’s

research; and the importance of cultivating diverse, credible sources and

viewpoints for probing, quality journalism. There is an even greater lesson

here, however, pertinent for all readers: consistent with the rise of

“modern” journalism from the late 1800s to the present, the institution of

journalism has bolstered itself with narratives celebrating its own

strategic importance to society, even when the narratives turn out to be

fictions.

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