W. Joseph Campbell

Books and Banter club discusses ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 19, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I was honored that the Books and Banter club in Washington, D.C., selected Getting It Wrong for discussion at its October meeting.

Getting It Wrong is my latest book; it debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–dubious or improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Sixteen members of the club met last night at a restaurant in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia–within a block or two of the underground parking garage where during the Watergate investigation Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward sometimes met his high-level federal source known as “Deep Throat.”

At the request of club member Paige Gold, who led the discussion, I dropped in for the closing half of the discussion about Getting It Wrong.

I told the club members that I didn’t consider Getting It Wrong as an exercise in media-bashing.

Rather, I said, I like to think of the book as aligned with a fundamental imperative in journalism–that of getting it right.

I had a great time fielding the club members’ very thoughtful, engaging, and intriguing questions.

Among those questions was whether media audiences bear any responsibility for the tenacity of media myths.

Not directly or significantly, I replied.

The myths addressed in Getting It Wrong are, in one way or another, all media-driven. Journalists and news organizations have been the primary culprits in pushing them. Their doing so is more than a little self-serving: After all, media myths serve to reinforce the notion that, for good or bad, the news media are central and decisive forces in American life.

So at one end of the scale, I said, “we have William Randolph Hearst, journalist-as-war-monger, who famously vowed to ‘furnish the war‘ with Spain” in the late 19th century.

At the other, I added, we have the heroic journalists of Watergate, Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein, whose investigative reporting brought down a corrupt presidency.

Myths such as those can be used to identify the media as malevolent forces or as indispensable guardians of truth and democratic values. And variety of that kind helps explain why media myths can be so tenacious.

I also was asked what should readers be sure to take away from the book.

In jest, I replied that I thought they should take away the recognition that Getting It Wrong is such a good book they should offer it as gifts to friends and family, especially at the year-end holidays.

Seriously, I added, the takeaway for readers may well be to treat media content with a healthy measure of skepticism, to realize that news reports often are tentative, incomplete, prone to error and revision.

This is especially the case in coverage of disasters, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a little more than five years ago.

Almost certainly, the early reports about a disaster will prove to be exaggerated in some fashion. The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans offers a telling reminder, I said.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, Katrina’s aftermath represented “no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

The flawed coverage–the erroneous reports of snipers firing at medical personnel and relief helicopters, of bodies being stacked like cordwood in the New Orleans convention center, of roving gangs raping and killing, of children with their throats slashed, of sharks plying the city’s flood waters–was not without consequences.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the over-the-top reporting “had the very real and serious effects of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of [storm] evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”

WJC

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