W. Joseph Campbell

‘Exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 12, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Getting It Wrong is exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed,” writes Lachlan Markay in introducing his detailed interview with me about my latest book.

He writes that W. Joseph Campbell “makes sure to stress at the outset that it is not a ‘media-bashing book.’ Rather, the volume stays true to journalism’s real mission: not myth-making, but fact-finding. Campbell seeks to set the record straight where often journalists themselves have obscured it.”

Excerpts of the interview–posted at the lively Newsbusters online site–follow. The transcript of the interview, which runs to 4,200 words, is accessible here. Other excerpts  will be posted at Media Myth Alert tomorrow and Sunday .

NEWSBUSTERS: We as a society, and as a culture, seem to have this iconic image, collective image, of a journalist in the good old days of journalism, of course, as sort of a shadowy figure with a little press label in his hat hammering away at his typewriter all night to make deadline. Is that a media driven myth, and do we have a sort of false nostalgia about the bygone days of journalism, when reporters were hardworking and honest and could really make a difference and affect positive change?

CAMPBELL: I mean, we can look back in those days, and I think very we’re very susceptible in journalism in general, to what I call in the book the Golden Age fallacy. It’s not my construction, others have identified it, but I think its very applicable to journalism to look back and say, “oh, yes, there really was a time when journalism mattered, when [Walter] Cronkite could shift the direction of a war, or [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein, two young reporters could bring down a president.”

That’s emblematic of the Golden Age fallacy. …

NB: So how are these media-driven myths created?

CAMPBELL: They come from lots of different sources. Sometimes these are stores that are just too good to be checked out. Like, William Randolph Hearst [and his famous vow], “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” That sums up not only Hearst and his malignant, toxic personality pretty well, but it also suggests the news media can, at the worst … even bring about a war that the country otherwise wouldn’t have fought.

NB: You open the book with the example of the New York Sun, and mere months before it closes shop, it offers Cronkite and [Edward] Murrow as the paragons of the power of journalism and journalistic integrity and honesty and speaking truth to power. Those are both myths?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, both of ’em. And Murrow–although he’s held up as the white knight of broadcast journalism–was very much a compromised character. Even his own biographers have identified what we would see today as disqualifying ethical lapses in his background. He claimed degrees that he did not earn, he coached Adlai Stevenson on the finer techniques of using television during the 1956 presidential campaign. Privately, he did this, but if that was known, and a well-known broadcast journalist was doing that today–well, I don’t know, but I suspect there would be considerable controversy about that kind of conduct.

Murrow, no white knight

No, Murrow was no white knight. …

NB: Going back to the New York Sun example, these are very self-serving myths sometimes, and today, when traditional journalism, especially print journalism, seems to be on the decline in terms of its influence, are these myths being promoted more than they have traditionally in an attempt by the old guard to convince people of–to make people nostalgic for the time when these honest journalists with integrity spoke truth to power?

CAMPBELL: There is no doubt part of that. That’s one of the factors.

I think that these stories, though, many of them–the Murrow story, the Cronkite story, Watergate, Hearst–are just too good to resist … and they [have] become ingrained as part of the accepted conventional wisdom.

The Watergate story–the dominant narrative of Watergate–really is that Woodward and Bernstein brought down a corrupt president. Now there’s no doubt in my mind that Nixon was corrupt and deserved to be removed from office, but the forces that brought him down were not Woodward and Bernstein. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post were really marginal to that [outcome]. But it’s become part of the story, part of the dominant narrative, it’s an intriguing story and it lives on that way.

It’s also a very simplistic explanation for a complex historical event, and that’s another reason these myths take hold and live on. Watergate was not–the outcome of Watergate was not due to the Washington Post so much as it was to the combined, collective, if not always coordinated efforts of subpoena-wielding authorities. The FBI, federal prosecutors, special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, ultimately the Supreme Court, which got Nixon to surrender the tapes the prosecutors had wanted, and those tapes quite clearly showed his active role in covering up the seminal crimes of Watergate.

So it took that kind of collective effort over a sustained period of time by people who could compel testimony and could compel the disclosure of evidence in ways that reporters can’t.

End of part one

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