W. Joseph Campbell

Going international: Media myths travel far, well

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 15, 2010 at 6:05 am

Prominent media-driven myths—the subject of my new book, Getting It Wrong—not only can be tenacious; some of them travel quite well, crossing linguistic and cultural borders with surprising ease.

Indeed, it’s a sign of hardy appeal when media-driven myths turn up in international contexts more often than just occasionally.

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–one of the 10 media myths I explore in Getting It Wrong—represents this phenomenon quite well. The heroic-journalist meme has it that the fearless investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then-young journalists for the Washington Post, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Woodward

It’s a compelling tale that long ago became the scandal’s dominant popular narrative.

It’s also a simplistic interpretation of what was a complex and intricate web of misconduct that took down Nixon and landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

I note in Getting It Wrong that to roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective, if not always the coordinated, efforts of special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, federal judges, the FBI, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered Nixon to surrender audiotapes that proved his complicity in the Watergate cover-up.

Against such a tableau, journalism’s contributions to unraveling Watergate were modest—certainly not decisive.

But because the heroic-journalist interpretation is so straightforward and unambiguous, it’s not surprising that it finds appeal across cultures and turns up fairly often in media reports outside the United States.

Simplicity propels the Watergate myth, enabling it to travel far and well.

Just the other day, for example, a commentary at Mediapart, a French online investigative reporting site, recalled Woodward and Bernstein as “the two journalists for the Washington Post who, thanks to their investigation, set in motion the resignation of President Richard Nixon, during Watergate.”

Another media myth that travels widely and well is that of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. Hearst’s pledge supposedly was contained in a cable to the artist Frederic Remington, whom Hearst sent to draw illustrations of the Cuban rebellion, which preceded the Spanish-American War.

The anecdote lives on as one of the most famous and delicious in American journalism—even though it is buttressed by no supporting documentation and is improbable on its face.

It is, however, a tale almost too good to be disbelieved, given that it so effectively captures Hearst as warmonger . The anecdote turns up more than occasionally abroad, especially in Spanish-language media.

I note in Getting It Wrong that “Hearst’s famous vow to ‘furnish the war’ has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”

With all that going for it, the step to adoption in international contexts is fairly small.

Beyond simplicity and deliciousness, the international appeal of prominent media myths also may be attributed to a keen and enduring curiosity abroad in American journalism. For all its faults and uncertainties, American journalism is a sprawling, robust, and intriguing profession. Such dynamism exerts appeal and interest beyond the United States.

American cinema is perhaps an even more powerful force: Hollywood treatments have helped solidify media myths. And Hollywood productions often travel well abroad.

The 1976 film All the President’s Men certainly helped propel the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, for example. As I write in Getting It Wrong: “More than thirty-five years later, what remains most vivid, memorable, and accessible about Watergate is the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.”

The movie, I note, “helped ensure the [heroic-journalist] myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

Hollywood also was crucial to cementing Hearst’s purported vow into the popular consciousness. That vehicle was Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture based loosely on Hearst’s life and times.

Hearst’s purported vow is paraphrased in a scene early in Kane, which some critics regard as the best-ever American motion picture.

The Hearstian vow also is quoted in the 1997 James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Or, as it was known in francophone countries, Demain ne meurt jamais.

WJC

A version of this post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

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