W. Joseph Campbell

Cinematic treatments can solidify media myths

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 14, 2010 at 7:12 am

In this, the last of three installments drawn from an interview with Newsbusters about Getting It Wrong, the discussion turns to whether new media are effective in thwarting the spread of media-driven myths.

I express doubts about that prospect.

The Newsbusters interview was conducted by Lachlan Markay, who described Getting It Wrong as “exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed.” The interview transcript is accessible here.

NEWSBUSTERS: Looking forward, do new media present an opportunity to debunk these myths, before they get started?

CAMPBELL: You would think that it would, and I think there has been some evidence that that’s the case, but then there are other myths that just seem to defy debunking newer myths.

Jack Shafer at Slate.com has done some interesting work in looking at the so-called … “pharm parties” in which young people would raid their medicine cabinets of their parents and just take whatever medication they could find, bring them to a party, and then dump them in a communal bowl, and sort of play Russian roulette with these drugs–by the handful take them, and see what kind of effect that they have.

And it seems to be an urban legend that’s just taken hold, and it’s appeared in newspapers, periodically, around the country–San Francisco to DC–and there seems to be no evidence to support this other than the notion that police have heard that this kind of stuff goes on. And Shafer’s written a number of columns at Slate that insist that no one has ever seen this happen, no one has ever attended a pharm party, there’s never been any kind of first person documentation.

And yet, the story is too good not to be true, and it lives on.

So you would think that the Internet would have been more effective by now in knocking down that kind of story. It hasn’t.

NB: So these myths, then, get started because newspapers have disregarded their own–or not just newspapers, but any media has disregarded its own standards of journalism.

CAMPBELL: You could see that in some cases, yeah, I suppose that’s true. [But] I don’t think they’re going at this whole hog and saying, we’re just going to forget about our standards and go at this story just because it sounds so good.

NB: Or, put differently, if those standards were followed to a T, some of these myths might never have taken shape.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that’s probably true.

NB: A lot of these myths are ingrained in our culture. They’re part of American history, included in textbooks. The Woodward and Bernstein example comes to mind. You have movies, for instance, All the President’sMen , or Good Night, and Good Luck with Edward R. Murrow–does pop culture, or culture in general, play a larger part in perpetuating these myths? Is this something that journalists create on their own, or is it out of their hands and American culture sees these magnificent stories, and sort of adopts them as their own?

CAMPBELL: I think the dynamic that leads to the solidification of media myths is a very interesting one. It’s kind of complex, but I think that some of the points that you’ve mentioned are very central to that process of solidifying a myth–sort of the national consciousness. Cinema does a very good job of doing that.

Cinematic treatments help solidify in the minds of people the supposed reality of some of these exchanges, of some of these encounters, of some of these moments.

…. the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men I think really helped solidify the notion that those two guys were central to bringing down Richard Nixon. In fact, the movie, as clever and well-done as it is, leads to no other interpretation but that. It had to be those guys. …

As a nation we do tend to remember things cinematically. I’m not the first one to say that. Others have looked at it more closely than I have and have made that determination. It’s a fair statement. Good Night, and Good Luck introduced a whole new generation of Americans to the notion that Edward R. Murrow was the one who did in Joe McCarthy, with his 30-minute television program.

NB: Do you have students who come in and say, “I saw Good Night and Good Luck and it inspired me to pursue a career in journalism”?

CAMPBELL: You know, I haven’t heard it said quite that way. But they do think that that movie is well done.

NB: The romanticism of journalism appeals to the students.

CAMPBELL: Exactly. And more students have seen All the President’s Men than have read the book, by far. … But cinema really is a factor that propels and solidifies these myths.

End of part three

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