Under the headline “The Master of Debunk,” Shafer notes that “the only way to debunk an enshrined falsehood is with maximum reportorial firepower.
“Toting big guns and an itchy trigger-finger is American University professor W. Joseph Campbell, whose new book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism flattens established myths that you were brought up to believe were true.”
Shafer’s review specifically discusses a variety of media-driven myths, including William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain; the so-called “Cronkite moment” that supposedly altered President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy; the Bay of Pigs suppression myth that erroneously says President John F. Kennedy persuaded the New York Times to spike a story about the pending U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba, and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.
Shafer rightly points out that “a debunker’s work is never done” and to that end notes my recent post at Media Myth Alert about Evan Thomas’ new book, The War Lovers. The book embraces myths of the yellow press period in American journalism, including the Hearst vow.
Shafer thoughtfully considers the tenacity of media-driven myths, writing:
“Some myths endure because the stories are so compelling, like the Hearst tale and the alleged mayhem caused by Orson Welles’ [War of the Worlds] broadcast. Others survive because our prejudices nourish them (“crack babies,” bra burners) or because pure repetition has drummed them into our heads, smothering the truth in the process.
“The best tonic for the brain fever caused by media myths is an open mind and a free inquiry,” he writes.
Shafer wraps up the review by invoking this observation, by Jonathan Rauch:
“It is the error we punish, not the errant.”
“Of course when you do such a good job punishing the error, as Campbell does, you don’t need to bother with the errant.”
- Why debunking matters
- Now at Political Bookworm, where ‘must-read books are discovered’
- Did he say it? A curious Murrow quote
- CJR reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’