W. Joseph Campbell

Myth-busting at Busboys and Poets

In Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 8, 2010 at 9:47 pm

It was a fine event last night at the Busboys and Poets restaurant/bookstore in the lively U Street corridor in Washington, D.C.

Despite the staggering, record-setting heat (temperatures reached 102 degrees in the capital), an engaging audience showed up for my talk about Getting It Wrong, my new book that busts 10 prominent media-driven myths.

I opened with a detailed look at what I called a “uniquely Washington historical event,” the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. Specifically, I described how the “heroic-journalist” interpretation has become the dominant narrative of Watergate–that is, how two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought Nixon down.

That interpretation, I said, represents a fundamental misreading of history, one that ignores the far more important and crucial contributions of subpoena-wielding authorities such as special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, federal investigators, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Against that tableau, newspapers—including the Post— were  decidedly modest factors” in determining Watergate’s outcome, I said. “Journalism’s contribution to Nixon’s fall was hardly decisive.”

Even principals of the Post have said as much over the years, I noted, quoting Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period who said:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Complexity-avoidance, I said, helps explain the tenacity of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate: Like many media myths, the heroic-journalist meme minimizes the intricacy of historical events in favor of simplistic, and misleading, interpretations.

It is far easier to focus on the exploits of the Washington Post reporters than it is to try to grapple with the intricacies and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal, I noted.

I also discussed media myths of the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968; the “crack babies” scare of the 1980s and 1990s, and the misreporting that characterized the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina‘s landfall in New Orleans in 2005.

Members of the audience posed a number of very thoughtful questions, including one about why the “crack baby” scare became so widespread.

At Busboys and Poets

It was propelled in part, I said, by hurried, anecdotal reporting.

Reporters and columnists pushed too eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research about children born to women who took crack cocaine during pregnancy. The horrors that some journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved to be quite wrong.

Part of the explanation for the wide embrace of “crack baby” myth, I said, was that it offered something for everyone,” as the magazine Mother Jones once put it.

I write in Getting It Wrong that the crack baby phenomenon “inspired fearful commentary across political and ideological boundaries.” It was “a rare social issue that had appeal across the political spectrum—appeal that made the phenomenon especially powerful, compelling, notable, and tenacious.

“For conservatives, the specter of crack babies underscored the importance of imposing stiff penalties in the country’s war on drugs. And penalties were stiffened for crack possession during the second half of the 1980s. For liberals, meanwhile, crack babies represented an opportunity to press for costly assistance programs aimed at helping crack users and their children.”

One of the best questions of the evening was about whether media audiences aren’t complicit in perpetuating media myths, whether media consumers have a role in myth-busting.

There is, I replied, plenty of room for media audiences to develop and hone a sense of skepticism, especially about news reports that seem too neat and tidy. Stories that seem too delicious, or too over the top, may prove to be inaccurate.

This also is the case with succinct turns of phrase. Quotations that “sound too neat and tidy,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “often are too perfect to be true.”

WJC

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