W. Joseph Campbell

Talking media myths at the alma mater

In 1897, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 19, 2011 at 9:06 am

I gave a talk about media-driven myths yesterday on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University, where years ago I earned my undergraduate degree in journalism and history.

The talk focused on three of the media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which is dedicated to Verne E. Edwards Jr., my journalism professor at Ohio Wesleyan.

I was delighted that Edwards and his wife attended yesterday’s talk, during which I discussed the myths of Watergate, of the “Cronkite Moment,” of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain.

These, I said, all are well-known tales about the power of the news media that often are taught in schools, colleges, and universities. All of them are delicious stories that purport to offer lessons about the news media’s power to bring about change, for good or ill.

I described media-driven myths as I often do — as “the junk food of journalism, meaning that they’re tasty and alluring, but in the end, not terribly healthy or nutritious.”

Because it debunks prominent media myths, Getting It Wrong, I said, should not be considered “yet another media-bashing book.”

Rather, I said, Getting It Wrong is aligned with a fundamental objective of American journalism — that of getting it right.

I noted that the book is provocative and edgy — inevitably so, given that it dismantles several of the most-cherished stories in American journalism.

Among them is the notion that the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post exposed the crimes of the administration of President Richard Nixon and forced his resignation in 1974.

I noted that the Post and its reporting “was really peripheral to the outcome” of Watergate, pointing out that even senior officials at the newspaper have insisted as much over the years.

Among them was Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post during Watergate, who said on the scandal’s 25th anniversary in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon's] resignation were constitutional.”

I also pointed out that Bob Woodward, one the lead reporters for the Post on Watergate, has expressed much the same sentiment, only in earthier terms. In an interview in 2004 with American Journalism Review, Woodward declared:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

I also reviewed the “Cronkite Moment” of February 27, 1968 — that legendary occasion when the on-air assessment of CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly altered American policy on the Vietnam War. At the end of a special report about Vietnam, Cronkite asserted that the U.S. war effort was “mired in stalemate.”

President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” analysis, snapped off the television set and declared:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or something to that effect.

I pointed out that Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired, that the president then was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

“About the time Cronkite was intoning his ‘mired in stalemate’ commentary,” I told the audience at Ohio Wesleyan, “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.’

“Now that may not have been the greatest presidential joke ever told,” I said, “but it is clear that Johnson at that time wasn’t lamenting his fate, wasn’t lamenting the supposed loss of Cronkite’s support” for the war in Vietnam.

Clearly, I added, the so-called “‘Cronkite Moment’ was of little importance or significance for Johnson. Especially since he didn’t even see the show when it aired.”

I described how Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” lives on despite Hearst’s denial and despite an array of reasons that point to the anecdote’s falsity.

Hearst supposedly made the vow in an exchange of telegrams with the artist Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba in early 1897 to draw sketches of the Cuban rebellion against Spanish colonial rule — the nasty conflict that gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The tale “lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency,” I said. “It would have been absurd for  Hearst to have vowed to ‘furnish the war’ because war — the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule — was the very reasons he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.”

Still, that anecdote and other media myths live on because they are “deliciously good stories — too good, almost, to be disbelieved,” I said. Too good, almost, to check out.

The university president, Rock Jones, introduced my talk, which was organized by Lesley Olson, general manager of the OWU bookstore, and by Cole E. Hatcher, the university’s director of media and community relations.

Two college buddies of mine, Hugh D. Pace and Tom Jenkins, also attended the talk.

WJC

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