I met in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood last night with a terrific group of American University alumni, at a program that featured a discussion of Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths.
The gathering was the second of the Cleveland area alumni chapter, which is ably led by Neil T. Young, Anthony Vacanti, and Antoinette Bacon. I was privileged to talk with the group about the book, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media myths–those false, dubious, improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.
We met at Michaelangelo’s, a fine Italian restaurant where the service is superb. Our discussion about Getting It Wrong was conducted seminar style and featured my fairly lengthy review of the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–the notion that the intrepid investigative reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
I described how the book All the President’s Men and the cinematic version by the same title helped solidify the notion that the Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were central to unraveling the Watergate scandal.
The book and the movie have had the effect of focusing on the Post reporters while ignoring or overlooking the far more significant contributions of federal prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court in identifying Nixon’s efforts to obstruct justice in the scandal.
“Against that backdrop,” I said, “the news media were decidedly modest factors” in Watergate’s outcome.
We also discussed the War of the Worlds myth–that Orson Welles’ 1938 radio dramatization of an invasion from Mars was so realistic that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and fled their homes in hysteria. The program was imaginative entertainment–and was recognized as such by listeners in overwhelming numbers, I pointed out.
In addition, we talked about the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of February 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite offered a downbeat analysis of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, saying the military was “mired in stalemate.”
Supposedly, Cronkite’s assessment came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson who, it is said, snapped off the television set upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” characterization and said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
In reality, I pointed out, the president wasn’t in front of a television set that night.
He was in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally. And even if Johnson had seen the Cronkite report on videotape, the anchorman’s assessment really was no epiphany, because the president in the days and weeks immediately afterward hewed to a hawkish line on Vietnam.
Questions from the alums were quite thoughtful. Among them was a query about the common threads may be found in the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong.
A thoughtful and perceptive question, that.
And indeed there are some shared characteristics of media myths.
Many myths are reductive, in that they offer simplistic explanations for complex historical events. That factor certainly helps explains the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate and the “Cronkite Moment.” It is far easier to characterize the news media as prime movers in the outcomes of Watergate and Vietnam than it is to grapple with the complexities and nuances of those landmark events, I said.
Additionally, media myths tend to be delicious stories–stories almost too good to be disbelieved. And that certainly holds for Watergate, the “Cronkite Moment,” and the War of the Worlds dramatization.
And media myths tend to be ways to assert the notion that the news media are powerful and influential forces in American society.
But as I write in Getting It Wrong, media power “tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational” and altogether “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”
Moreover, I write, “The American media these days are far too splintered and diverse—print, broadcast, cable, satellite, online—to exert much in the way of collective and sustained influence on policymakers or media audiences.”