“They are, first of all, deliciously good stories–too good, almost, to be disbelieved.
“They also are appealingly reductive, in that they minimize complexity of historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. The Washington Post no more brought down [President Richard] Nixon than Walter Cronkite swayed [President Lyndon] Johnson’s views about the war in Vietnam. Yet those and other media myths endure because they present unambiguous, easy-to-remember explanations for complex historic events.
“Some media-driven myths can be self-flattering, offering up heroes in a profession more accustomed to scorn and criticism than applause.
“More important, though, is that media-driven myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and significance in what journalists do. These myths affirm the centrality of the news media in public life and ratify the notion the media are powerful, even decisive actors.
“To identify these tales as media-driven myths is to confront the reality that the news media are not the powerful agents they, and so many others, assume them to be.”
That’s often the case: Because the media are everywhere, it is easy, as Robert J. Samuelson once wrote, to confound their presence with power.
And as the sociologist Herbert J. Gans has observed:
“If news audiences had to respond to all the news to which they are exposed, they would not have time to live their own lives. In fact, people screen out many things, including the news, that could interfere with their own lives.”