I guestpost today at the Political Bookworm, a Washington Post-sponsored site that describes itself as a blog where “tomorrow’s must-read political books are discovered today.”
Political Bookworm is edited by Steven Levingston, the Post‘s nonfiction editor. The blog notes that it “discusses new books long before they hit the shelves.”
And here’s the text of my guest post:
The most famous anecdote in American journalism may be William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow, telegraphed to the artist Frederic Remington in Cuba, to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.
Or it may be Edward R. Murrow’s television program on CBS in 1954, which supposedly brought an end to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.
Or it may be the interpretation of Watergate that says The Washington Post’s investigative reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
All three are well-known stories about the exercise of media power, for good or bad. All three anecdotes are often retold.
All three are media-driven myths.
Media myths often confer on the news media far more power and influence than they merit or possess. Media myths also tend to minimize the complexity of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations.
That’s an important reason why Hearst’s vow has lived on for more than 100 years: It is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It conforms to the popular image of Hearst as war-monger.
Hearst, though, denied making such a statement. The telegram containing his purported pledge has never turned up. And it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war — Cuba’s rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule — was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba. (The Cuban rebellion gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.)
The “furnish the war” anecdote can be traced to 1901 and a memoir by another journalist, James Creelman, who did not say when or how he learned story about Hearst’s vow.
The Murrow-McCarthy myth stems from Murrow’s See It Now program on March 9, 1954. See It Now that night dissected McCarthy’s crude investigative techniques and taste for the half-truth — none of which was unknown to American audiences at the time
Years before the program aired, several prominent journalists — including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson — had become searching critics of McCarthy and his tactics.
Interestingly, the myth took hold despite Murrow’s protests. In the weeks following the See It Now program, Murrow said he recognized that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about the red-baiting senator.
Similarly, principals at The Washington Post over the years have disputed the notion their newspaper toppled Nixon, who resigned in 1974. Among them was Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
She was right, but the complexities of Watergate — the deceit and criminality that characterized the Nixon White House and the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal — are not readily recalled these days.
What does stand out is a media-centric interpretation, that the dogged reporting of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought Nixon down. It’s a familiar storyline, a proxy for grasping Watergate’s essence while sidestepping its complexities.
That storyline was solidified by the 1976 motion picture, “All the President’s Men,” the screen adaptation of Bernstein and Woodward’s book of the same title. The film casts the reporters as central to unraveling the scandal.
Debunking these and other media myths matters for a variety of reasons. Media myths can and do feed stereotypes. They distort our understanding of the news media and of history. And there is inherent value in setting the record straight.
In that sense, myth-busting is aligned with a central objective of newsgathering — that of getting it right.