W. Joseph Campbell

‘Sneakily patriotic’ movies that promote media myths

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 1, 2011 at 7:28 am

The film critic for Gannett News Service has identified in time for the Fourth of July weekend 10 movies he says are “sneakily patriotic.”

Meaning they promote patriotism indirectly, without a lot of flag-waving flamboyance.

The list, compiled by critic Bill Goodykoontz, includes Apollo 13, the dramatic 1995 movie about an ill-fated lunar mission that ended safely, and Miracle, the 2004 film about the gold medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympics hockey team, a movie that does feature a fair amount of flag-waving.

Notably, two of the “sneakily patriotic” films have promoted and propelled media-driven myths — those dubious and improbable tales about news media that masquerade as factual.

Both myth-promoting movies push the extravagant notion that the news media are, or were, powerful and decisive forces in American political life. And both movies are discussed in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year.

The myth-promoters are:

Goodykoontz, in describing the two movies, invokes their mythical aspects.

About All the President’s Men, Goodykoontz writes that Woodward and Bernstein’s “coverage of the Watergate break-in … led, ultimately, to the resignation of Richard Nixon.”

And Good Night, and Good Luck, he writes, “evokes an earlier era of media and how it could be used to stem the abuse of power.”

I point out in Getting It Wrong how movies can solidify media-driven myths in the public’s consciousness. “High-quality cinematic treatments,” I write, “are powerful agents of media myth-making, and can enhance a myth’s durability.”

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men solidified what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the simplistic notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

All the President’s Men, I write, allows no interpretation other than it was the work of Woodward and Bernstein that “set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

But to embrace that interpretation, I further write in Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

The heroic-journalist interpretation serves to diminish and ignore the far more powerful forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.

Those forces, I write, “included special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him” plotting to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

When considered against the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein pale in significance and consequence.

A somewhat similar dynamic is at work in Good Night, and Good Luck.

The movie, which was released in black and white to lend a 1950s feel, permits no other conclusion than Murrow’s See It Now program about McCarthy single-handedly ended the senator’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.

Murrow’s show detailing McCarthy’s loathsome and bullying tactics was aired in March 1954 — long after other journalists had confronted the senator and, in some cases, paid a heavy price for doing so.

Among those journalists was the muckraking columnist Drew Pearson, who took aim at McCarthy in February 1950, not long after the senator began his red-baiting campaign.

By the end of that year, McCarthy had physically assaulted Pearson and denounced him from the Senate floor as the “diabolically” clever “voice of international communism,” a “prostitute of journalism,” and the “sugar-coated voice of Russia.”

In the Senate speech excoriating Pearson, McCarthy aimed a threat at Adam Hat Stores Inc., the principal sponsor of the columnist’s Sunday night radio program.

McCarthy said that “anyone who buys from a store that stocks an Adams hat is unknowingly contributing at least something to the cause of international communism by keeping this communist spokesman on the air.”

Within a week, Adam Hat announced the end of its sponsorship of Pearson’s program.

Pearson may not have had the finest reputation in 1950s American journalism. Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate.com, wrote last year that Pearson was “one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.”

But Pearson took on McCarthy years before Murrow — and long before it was safe. He certainly was “sneakily patriotic” in doing so.

WJC

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