Q: Which media myths has been around the longest?
A: The anecdote of Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain dates back nearly 120 years. It was first recounted in a book of reminiscences by James Creelman, a bluff, cigar-chomping journalist who admired Hearst’s style of aggressive, activist journalism. In his book, Creelman recounted the vow in an admiring way, saying it demonstrated how Hearst’s “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events. But over the years, the vow took on far more sinister overtones. And that’s how it’s usually told today—as an example of media power run amok. It’s also the statement most often attributed to Hearst. But he denied ever having made such a vow.
Q: So why is it important to take time and energy to debunk media-driven myths?
A: Because they aren’t trivial, and they aren’t innocuous. Media-driven myths can and do have adverse consequences. They tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society. They often confer on the news media far more power and influence than they really possess. Media myths tend to minimize the complexity of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations. And media myths can deflect blame away from the makers and sponsors of flawed public policy.
Media myths can feed stereotypes, too. The highly exaggerated news reports of nightmarish violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in 2005 essentially defamed the battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.
Media myths also invite indulgence in the “golden age fallacy”—a flawed but appealing belief that there really was a time when journalist were inspiring and respected heroic figures.
So media-driven myths can be deceiving and illusory. Trivial and innocuous, they aren’t.
Q: What fresh insights does this book offer?
A: There are many. The chapter in Getting It Wrong on the War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938 calls attention to how second- and third-hand accounts spread rapidly as the broadcast unfolded and became significant and but little-recognized sources of fright that October night. A false-alarm contagion took hold in many places in the country, sowing fear and confusion among many people who had heard not a single word of the program.
The chapter about the media-driven myth of the New York Times’ bowing to White House pressure and suppressing its reporting in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 offers new evidence, too. The chapter demonstrates how President John F. Kennedy had almost no opportunity to call the Times and bring pressure to bear when a crucial news report about the pending invasion was edited and prepared for publication.
Getting It Wrong also demonstrates how the erroneous media reports about the supposed heroism of Private Jessica Lynch during the first days of the Iraq War in 2003 obscured the truly heroic deeds of another U.S. soldier, Sergeant Donald Walters. It’s pretty clear that Lynch initially received credit in the media for the actions of Donald Walters, who was captured and executed by Iraqi irregulars. But Walters’ heroics have received only scant and passing attention from the news media.
Q: In short, what are this book’s most important contributions?
Getting It Wrong challenges media-centric interpretations of history, offers perspective about media power and influence, and endeavors to set the record straight on some of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself. It’s also offers a cautionary tale about the capacity of the news media to present misleading or distorted interpretations of important events.
It should be noted, too, that no other book has addressed and examined prominent media-driven myths the way Getting It Wrong does.