Q: So what are media-driven myths?
A: They are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, on close inspection, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Media-driven myths are dubious tales that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence. They can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism.” Or as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as factual, in some cases for decades.
Q: Give me an example of a media-driven myth.
A: There are many of them. Certainly well-known is the tale that two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon. It’s an appealing story, evoking David vs. Goliath and all. But it’s a media myth. Nixon’s fall was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces—newspapers being among the least decisive. Journalism’s contribution to Nixon’s fall was modest at best. But it’s far easier to focus on the exploits of the two heroic journalists than it is to grapple with the intricacies and baffling complexities of the Watergate scandal.
A similar dynamic helped propel the media myth of Edward R. Murrow’s television program in 1954, which supposedly unmasked Senator Joseph McCarthy and ended his virulent, communists-in-government witch-hunt. Many factors combined to bring about McCarthy’s downfall, not the least of which were his own excesses and miscalculations. But the notion that Murrow was the giant killer is very appealing, often taught, and easy to remember.
Q: And where do media-driven myths come from?
A: They arise from many sources—including the tendency to believe the news media are very powerful and sometimes even dangerous forces in society. Media myths also are appealing because they offer simplistic answers to complex issues. Stories that are too good—too delicious—to be checked out also can become media myths. Those three factors—media power, simple answers to complex questions, and a sense of being too good not to be true—help explain the emergence and tenacity of one of the most famous media myths—the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain. That anecdote is rich, telling, and delicious—and fits well with the image of Hearst as war-monger. But it’s almost certainly apocryphal.
Sloppy reporting, and anecdote-driven reporting, can give rise to media myths, too. We see that in the myth of “crack babies” of the late 1980s and 1990s— that children born to women who took cocaine during pregnancy were fated to become what journalists called a “bio underclass.” Doing crack while pregnant is lunacy. But the much-feared social catastrophe, the “bio underclass,” never materialized.
High-quality cinematic treatments can be powerful agents of media myth-making, too. Millions of Americans born after 1954 were introduced to the famous Murrow-McCarthy confrontation through Good Night, and Good Luck, a critically acclaimed motion picture released in 2005. Good Night, and Good Luck cleverly promoted the view that Murrow stood up to McCarthy when no one else would or could.
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