A terrific audience of journalism students and faculty turned out last night for my talk at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism.
I walked through the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency; the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that reputedly shifted U.S. public opinion about the war in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization of 1938 that supposedly panicked listeners across the United States.
During the Q-and-A period that followed, I touched on the famous vow to “furnish the war” attributed to William Randolph Hearst and on the erroneously reported battlefield heroics of Private Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War.
An intriguing question from the audience was what message should students take away from a book that identifies as media-driven myths some of the best-known stories in American journalism. The implication was that mythbusting may undercut the regard would-be journalists have for the profession.
I replied by saying that I don’t consider Getting It Wrong a media-bashing book: Such books are many on the market as it is.
And it does journalism little good to indulge in tales such as the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate or the mythical “Cronkite Moment” that offer misleading interpretations about the news media and their power.
Debunking media myths, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “can help to place media influence in more coherent context.”
Nor should we worry about students being disappointed that well-known and even cherished stories about American journalism have been exposed as mythical. It shouldn’t be disheartening to learn the news media aren’t necessarily the powerful forces they are often believed to be.
Students can handle it.
Not only that, but mythbusting can offer them useful lessons in the importance of applying skepticism and a critical eye to dominant narratives and received wisdom of American journalism.
Indeed, Professor John Kirch, host and organizer of my talk at Maryland, does just that in presenting these and other tales in his journalism classes. Doing so can become a revealing exercise in critical thinking.
I also was asked about candidate-myths for a prospective sequel to Getting It Wrong.
A strong candidate for such a book, I said, is the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.
The myth has it that people who watched the debate on television thought that Senator John F. Kennedy won; those who listened on radio thought Vice President Richard Nixon had the better of the exchanges.
The notion of listener-viewer-disagreement was long ago debunked by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell, in an article in Central States Speech Journal. They noted that reports of viewer-listener disagreement typically were anecdotal and the few surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect were too small and unrepresentative from which to make confident judgments.
But the myth is a hardy one, I noted, and it resurfaced in late September, at the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon encounter.
Among the 80 or so people in attendance last night was Jamie McIntyre, former Pentagon correspondent for CNN. Afterward, we compared notes about the misreported Lynch case, which the Washington Post propelled into the public domain with a botched, front-page story in early April 2003.
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