The book fair this year brings together a variety of authors, including one of my favorite journalism historians, Maurine Beasley of the University of Maryland; Jack Fuller, author of What Is Happening To News, and Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a stricken passenger airliner on the Hudson River in January 2009.
The Book Fair is a fine occasion. I attended the event in 2006 and had a great time. My book at that event was The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms.
Getting It Wrong, which came out during the summer, addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. These are stories about and/or by the news media that widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.
I liken them to the “junk food” of journalism–delicious and appealing, perhaps, but not terribly healthy or nutritious.
The myths debunked in Getting It Wrong include some of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself, including:
- the notion that Edward R. Murrow‘s half-hour See It Now television program in March 1954 abruptly ended the communists-in-government witch-hunt of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
- the claim that Walter Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam, which aired on CBS television in February 1968, turned public opinion against the conflict and prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to alter his war policy.
- the view that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt president of Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate scandal.
- the notion that coverage of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005 was marked by superlative reporting; in fact, the Katrina coverage was marred by inaccuracies and wildly exaggerated reports of mayhem and unspeakable violence.
“Because it takes on some of the most treasured stories in American journalism,” I write in the introduction to Getting It Wrong, the book “is a work with a provocative edge. It could not be otherwise.”
I further write that Getting It Wrong “aligns itself with a central objective of newsgathering—that of seeking to get it right, of setting straight the record by offering searching reappraisals of some of the best-known stories journalism tells about itself.
“Given that truth-seeking is such a widely shared and animating value in American journalism,” I add, “it is a bit odd that so little effort has been made over the years to revisit, scrutinize, and verify these stories. But then, journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”
I point out that media myths take hold for a variety of reasons: Because they delicious stories that are almost too good not to be true; because they are reductive in offering simplistic interpretations of complex historical events, and because they are self-flattering in that they place journalists at the decisive center of important developments.
The Book Fair opens at 5:30 p.m. Admission is free for members, and $5 for non-members.
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