The interview was live, brisk, and wide-ranging, covering a number of topics discussed in Getting It Wrong, my new book which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–those dubious and improbable stories about the media that masquerade as factual.
Topics that Dunaway and I discussed included the media myths associated with the Washington Post and the Watergate scandal, with Edward R. Murrow and his 1954 program on Senator Joseph McCarthy, and with coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in 2005.
Dunaway, a veteran talk-shown host in Connecticut (with whom I had never previously spoken), said in introducing the segment:
“There are a lot of things we believe growing up and some of these are very near and dear to my heart. One would be–and I think this is absolutely true–when I was in graduate school, everybody, especially on the print side, everybody wanted to be the next Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward [of Watergate fame] and, you know, bring down a president. That was kind of their dream.”
“Anyhow, there’s a great book out now. And what you believe ain’t necessarily so. W. Joseph Campbell has written a book … called Getting It Wrong …
“First of all,” Dunaway said in launching into the interview, “I must tell you how much I enjoyed the book. It was a trip down memory lane, but maybe in a different direction than I originally thought.”
He asked whether I wrote the book to “set the record straight a bit.”
“That’s exactly right,” I replied. “The book is not really a media-bashing book but really aligns itself with a central objective of news-gathering, which is to try to get it right. And the book does seek to set the record straight by offering reappraisals of some of the best-known stories in American journalism.”
“I think these stories live on because they do offer simplistic explanations and simplistic answers to very complex historical events. So it’s a way of distilling what went on in the past [in] a very digestible and understandable way.
“In the process of simplification, though, there are exaggerations made–and myths are born. And I think that’s a recurring theme in this book. … These stories are appealing stories. They’re delicious stories. They’re almost too good to be checked out, and I think that’s another reason why these have lived on.”
We spent some time discussing the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post brought about President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“Woodward and Bernstein–the Watergate story–is another example of the David-and-Goliath encounter,” another thread that runs through Getting It Wrong, I said, adding that Nixon’s fall in the Watergate scandal “was the consequence of his own criminal conduct and that was exposed through the convergence of many forces and factors.
“And the Washington Post, although it did some good reporting in the aftermath of the Watergate breakin in 1972–it wasn’t the decisive factor.
“Its reporting did not bring down Richard Nixon.”
The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was highly exaggerated and represented “no high heroic moment for American journalism,” I pointed out.
We spoke about exaggerated estimated death tolls in New Orleans in Katrina’s wake–estimates of 10,000 fatalities or more that were offered by public officials including the city’s then-mayor, Ray Nagin.
“Nagin’s estimate is another example of why journalists and reporters have an obligation to themselves and to their audiences to question sources closely. ‘How did you find that information, Mr. Mayor? Could we talk to people who came up with that estimate?’ I mean, not being credulous but being searching, and a bit skeptical.
“I think skepticism was absent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly unleashed was absolutely untrue.”
Dunaway wrapped up the interview by calling the book “more of a learning experience than a critique.”
That was an interesting characterization with which to close an engaging and thoughtful interview.
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