W. Joseph Campbell

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‘When I lost Cronkite’–or ‘something to that effect’

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews on November 20, 2010 at 9:46 am

I discuss in my mythbusting book Getting It Wrong how accounts vary widely as to what President Lyndon Johnson purportedly said in reacting to Walter Cronkite’s on-air commentary in 1968 that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.”

Acute version variability has taken hold over the years and, as suggested by a theatrical review in yesterday’s Washington Times, fresh versions as to what Johnson said keep popping up.

Many published accounts have said Johnson’s reaction was: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Other accounts quote the president as saying: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people.”

Or: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

Or: “If we lose Cronkite, we lose America.”

The most common published version probably is: “If I lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” It’s the version Cronkite included in his 1997 memoir, A Reporter’s Life.

In any case, version variability of such magnitude, I write in Getting It Wrong, signals more than laziness and reluctance to trace the derivation of a popular anecdote. The shifting versions of what Johnson supposedly said are an indicator the Cronkite-Johnson anecdote is bogus, a marker of a media-driven myth.

After all, the remarks and utterances of the president of the United States are among the most carefully chronicled. The many inconsistent accounts of Johnson’s remarks are akin to the effects of a tall tale that changes with frequent retelling.

The latest version of Johnson purported response appeared in the Washington Times review of a comedy titled Walter Cronkite Is Dead, which recently opened at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in suburban Washington, D.C.

The play isn’t much about Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman who died 16 months ago. But the reviewer carries on about Cronkite at some length, and indulges in media myth in writing:

“Walter was regarded as the Gospel when it came to reporting the Vietnam War and his reports were instrumental in turning around the nation’s support for that war.

“Lyndon Johnson was reputed to have said of his own prospects, ‘When I lost Cronkite, I lost the election,’ or something to that effect. Not long after his observation, the beleaguered president dropped out of the 1968 electoral contest.”

Let’s consider the passages in bold: Both are dubious claims.

First, the notion that Cronkite’s views on the war in Vietnam “were instrumental” in altering public opinion.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, American public opinion had begun shifting against the war months before Cronkite offered his “mired in stalemate” assessment in special report that aired February 27, 1968.

By October 1967, 47 percent of Americans, a plurality, maintained that U.S. military presence in Vietnam was a mistake, according to Gallup surveys.

In a Gallup poll completed in early February 1968, three weeks before the Cronkite special report, the proportion saying the war was a mistake stood at 46 percent. Forty-two percent said it had not been a mistake.

As for the purported Johnson comment, “When I lost Cronkite, I lost the election”–it’s assuredly bogus. Johnson had stood in no election at the time of Cronkite’s commentary. The Democratic primary election in New Hampshire was a couple of weeks away, and Johnson would win as a write-in candidate.

More important, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired.

The president at the time was in Austin, Texas, attending the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

Quite simply, Johnson could not have had “the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him,” as I write in Getting It Wrong. It’s illogical to argue he was much moved by a television report he hadn’t seen.

There is, moreover, no evidence Johnson later watched the Cronkite program on videotape.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong:

“The power of the ‘Cronkite moment’ resides in the sudden, unexpected, and decisive effect it supposedly had on the president. Such an effect would have been absent, or greatly diminished, had Johnson had seen the program on videotape at some later date.”


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Mythbusting at the Smithsonian

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

A fine crowd was on hand last night for my book talk at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Center about media-driven myths.

The talk was part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program, which organized the event superbly well.

During the talk, I reviewed three of the 10 media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong: the heroic-journalist myth that has become the most popular narrative of the Watergate scandal; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize the futility of the war effort in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 that purportedly pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

I also offered a few suggestions about identifying and sidestepping media myths, suggestions that included being skeptical about turns of phrase that just sound too neat and tidy–almost too good to be true. Another bit of advice was to apply logic and healthy skepticism to extravagant claims about the news media and their presumed influence.

Questions and comments from the audience of 170 or so people were especially thoughtful.

One comment was about the notion the famous New York City blackout in November 1965 was followed nine months later by an uptick in births–a linkage suggested in reports by the New York Times in August 1966. The Times quoted a sociologist as saying then:

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other.”

Though not addressed in Getting It Wrong, it is an intriguing topic, one that could be considered in a sequel about media myths, I said.

I added that the blackout tale sounded a lot like more recent speculation that the major snowstorms along the East Coast in December 2009 and February 2010 would give rise to an increase in live births nine months later. A blizzard baby boom, as it were.

That correlation may be mythical, though.

Still, the notion there is such a linkage isn’t entirely far-fetched. It rests on the cusp of plausibility–as do many media myths addressed in Getting It Wrong, I said.

I also noted during the Q-and-A session that media myths that have appeal across the political spectrum can be especially tenacious and enduring. They are tales, I said, that offer something for everyone.

The “crack baby” scare of the late 1980s and 1990s is an example of a media-driven narrative that offered something for everyone.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The crack baby was a rare social issue that had appeal across the political spectrum—appeal that made the phenomenon especially powerful, compelling, notable, and tenacious. For conservatives, the specter of crack babies underscored the importance of imposing stiff penalties in the country’s war on drugs. And penalties were stiffened for crack possession during the second half of the 1980s. For liberals, meanwhile, crack babies represented an opportunity to press for costly assistance programs aimed at helping crack users and their children.”

“Crack babies” were children born to women who had taken cocaine during pregnancy, and many news reports and commentaries predicted an epidemic of crack-damaged misfits.

Among the more overheated predictions was that of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who wrote in 1989:

“The inner-city crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.”

Krauthammer likened the crack-induced “bio-underclass” to a “biologically determined underclass of the underclass.”

But it never happened.

The crack baby phenomenon turned out to be the epidemic that wasn’t, the product of over-the-top, anecdote-driven news reporting.


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Koppel goes on NPR, indulges in media myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on November 18, 2010 at 6:19 am

Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s Nightline program, has been back in the public eye of late, following his smug but widely noted lament in the Washington Post about the partisanship of cable TV news.

Koppel (Wikicommons)

Koppel renewed his complaint in an interview the other day on NPR’s Talk of the Nation–during which he indulged in some of American journalism’s most alluring mythology.

Specifically, Koppel embraced the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and saluted Edward R. Murrow’s legendary report about Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954–much as Keith Olbermann, Koppel’s nemesis of late, did the other night on his MSNBC show, Countdown.

In the interview on Talk of the Nation, Koppel said one of the most memorable programs in Cronkite’s years as CBS News anchorman was “the piece that he did when he came back after a couple of weeks in Vietnam and of which President Johnson famously said, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.'”

As for Murrow, Koppel said that “what is most remembered about what Ed Murrow did is the extraordinary See It Now piece that he did on Joseph McCarthy.”

Let’s unpack both dubious claims.

Cronkite first.

As I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, President Lyndon Johnson “did not have—could not have had—the abrupt yet resigned reaction that so often has been attributed to him. That’s because Johnson did not see the [Cronkite] program when it was aired.”

And there’s no evidence he ever saw it on videotape, either.

As such, it’s quite difficult to make a case that Johnson was much moved by a program he didn’t see.

Cronkite closed his report on Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968, with an editorial comment that the U.S. military effort  was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations might eventually offer a way out.

Media myth has it that Johnson, at the White House, saw the Cronkite program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s “mired in stalemate” assessment, leaned over, snapped off the television set, and said to an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Another, more common version quotes Johnson as saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

There are other versions, too, of what the president supposedly said in reaction.

But Johnson wasn’t at the White House that night. He wasn’t in front of a television set, either.

Johnson at Austin

At the time Cronkite offered his downbeat commentary, Johnson was offering light-hearted banter in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

The president wasn’t agonizing about his policy in Vietnam. He wasn’t wringing his hands about losing the country. He was teasing Connally about his age: “Today you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

What’s more, Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” opinion was, by February 1968, neither exceptional nor stunning. Indeed, nearly seven months before Cronkite’s program, the  New York Times published a front-page report that cited “disinterested observers” as saying the war in Vietnam was “not going well.” Victory, the Times reported, “is not close at hand. It may be beyond reach.”

That analysis was published in August 1967, beneath the headline:

“Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.”

As for Murrow’s “extraordinary” show about McCarthy: It wasn’t all that extraordinary. It aired March 9, 1954–years after other journalists had begun scrutinizing the senator’s exaggerated claims and hard-ball tactics in campaigning against communists in government.

Long before the See It Now program,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Some critics at the time pointed out that the See It Now program had offered nothing new about McCarthy.

“Murrow said nothing, and his cameras showed nothing, that this and some other newspapers have not been saying—and saying more strongly—for three or four years,” Jay Nelson Tuck, the New York Post’s television writer, wrote after the program. He was referring to the 17-part series on McCarthy that ran in the Post in 1951.

“The news” in Murrow’s program, Tuck added, “was in the fact that television was saying it at all.”

Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, Fred W. Friendly, also rejected claims the See It Now program about Murrow was exceptional or decisive.

Friendly wrote in his memoir:

“To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”

Interestingly, a book that Murrow and Friendly compiled in 1955 about the best of the See It Now omitted the 1954 show on McCarthy, the one that Koppel claims was so “extraordinary.”


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Media history with Olbermann: Wrong and wrong

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on November 17, 2010 at 7:15 am

MSNBC host Keith Olbermann invoked media history the other night in a blustering, on-air response to criticism by Ted Koppel, the former host of ABC’s Nightline, about hyperpartisanship on cable TV news.

Trouble is, Olbermann got it wrong in the two history lessons he cited–the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and the Murrow-McCarthy encounter of 1954.

In both cases, Olbermann bought into tenacious media-driven myths.

The so-called “Cronkite Moment” came on February 27, 1968, when CBS News anchorman said in an on-air commentary that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate” and suggested that negotiations might offer a way out of the morass.

Declared Olbermann: “All that newscast did was convince the 36th president of the United States to not seek reelection.”

It had no such effect.

The media-driven myth surrounding the “Cronkite Moment”–one of 10 media myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong–has it that Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, saw the program and, upon hearing the anchorman’s commentary, told an aide or aides, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect.

But Johnson didn’t see the show when it aired. He was in Austin, Texas, at the time, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, a longtime political ally.

The president couldn’t have been much moved by–or decided his political future on–a show he hadn’t seen. And there’s no evidence that he watched it on videotape at some later date.

Johnson announced at the end of March 1968 that he would not seek reelection. It was a stunning development–but the Cronkite show had nothing to do with the president’s decision.

Johnson’s announcement came a couple of weeks after his surprisingly poor showing as a write-in candidate in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The president won the primary with 49 percent of the vote. But Senator Eugene McCarthy won 42 percent, an unexpectedly strong result.

Within days, Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. So Johnson faced a brutal course to winning the party’s nomination, not to mention reelection.

Moreover, there’s strong evidence that Johnson never intended to seek another term, that in 1967, or even earlier, he had decided against another campaign for the presidency. (Johnson wrote in his memoir, The Vantage Point: “Long before I settled on the proper forum to make my announcement, I had told a number of people of my intention not to run again.”)

Given those factors, Cronkite’s show at the end of February 1968 recedes into trivial insignificance as a factor in Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection.

Olbermann in his commentary referred to Edward R. Murrow as “a paragon of straight reporting” and claimed the American press “stood idly by” as Senator Joseph R. McCarthy pursued his communists-in-government witch-hunt.

But on March 9, 1954, on a 30-minute television show called See It Now, “Murrow slayed the dragon,” Olbermann declared.

But neither Murrow, nor his producer Fred Friendly, bought the dragon-slaying interpretation. (The latter wrote in his memoir, Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control: “To say that the Murrow broadcast of March 9, 1954, was the decisive blow against Senator McCarthy’s power is as inaccurate as it is to say that Joseph R. McCarthy … single-handedly gave birth to McCarthyism.”)

And it’s quite clear that the American press did not stand “idly by” as the scourge of McCarthyism emerged.

Drew Pearson

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“Long before the See It Now program, several prominent journalists—including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson—had become persistent and searching critics of McCarthy, his record, and his tactics.”

Indeed, Pearson was McCarthy’s most relentless and implacable media foe during the senator’s witch-hunt.

In his widely read column, Pearson ridiculed McCarthy as the “harum-scarum” senator and dismissed his allegations “way off base.” And those characterizations came in February 1950–more than four years before Murrow’s See It Now show on McCarthy.

Pearson was unrelenting in his scrutiny of McCarthy, calling attention to the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and to questionable payments McCarthy received from a government contractor.

McCarthy was so annoyed by Pearson’s probing that he threatened the columnist at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., in May 1950. On that occasion, McCarthy placed a hand on Pearson’s arm and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm….”

That was a prelude to a violent encounter in December 1950, when McCarthy cornered Pearson in the cloakroom of the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington and either kneed the columnist in the groin or slapped him hard across the face.

So, no, the press didn’t stand “idly by” in face of the McCarthy menace.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, by March 1954 Americans weren’t “waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

They already knew, from the work of Pearson and others.

And Pearson took on McCarthy when doing was not risk-free.


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Murrow: No white knight–and not above the political fray

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth on November 16, 2010 at 8:52 am

In the hand-wringing of late about the partisanship of cable news, Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of American broadcasting, has been invoked as a brave and exemplary journalist who remained properly above the sordid fray.

That was just the sentiment expressed the other day by a commentator for CNN’s online site, who wrote:

“In the current hyperpartisan media environment, it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way.

“Broadcast icon Edward R. Murrow was not a registered Democrat or Republican–he was an independent. Before courageously taking on Sen. Joe McCarthy, he was considered an anti-communist, supporting, for example, the execution of the Rosenbergs as spies for the Soviet Union. He wouldn’t have dreamed of giving donations to political candidates.”

To say Murrow he was studiously nonpartisan is to misread history. Murrow wasn’t so above the fray, and he was no white knight.

Notably, he donated time and expertise to helping the 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson.

In my latest book, Getting It Wrong, I cite A.M. Sperber, one of Murrow’s leading biographers, in noting how Murrow privately counseled Stevenson on “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber wrote in her 1986 work, Murrow: His Life and Times, that although the 1956 presidential election was a foregone conclusion, that Republican incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower was certain to win,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.” Sperber called Murrow’s decision  “a radical departure from his usual practice.”

The idea, Sperber wrote, was “to effect a liaison between the broadcaster and the candidate, to discuss the use of TV in the forthcoming campaign.”

She noted that the Murrow-Stevenson “connection was kept under wraps,” that the “understanding” between the broadcaster and Stevenson advisers was that Murrow “was acting as a private citizen” and that the matter was to be “kept quiet.”

Why did Murrow do it?

“He wouldn’t say,” Sperber wrote, adding that Murrow’s “friends, knowing his detestation of [John] Foster Dulles, were not surprised.” Dulles, a political conservative, was Eisenhower’s secretary of state and Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1954.

In the end, Murrow’s coaching of Stevenson came to little, Sperber wrote. They met in a New York studio in June 1956 and Murrow “sweated over the candidate, trying to inculcate the finer points of speaking to the camera. Stevenson barely endured it, chiding campaign manager George Ball about the money this was costing the Democrats.”

Sperber added that Murrow also “dictated a few ideas for issue-oriented TV spots” that were “never put to use.”

I write in Getting It Wrong that there is “no small irony in journalism’s veneration of Murrow, who died in 1965. He was in some respects a flawed character—and hardly a ‘journalist above reproach.’ On his employment application at CBS, Murrow added five years to his age and claimed to have majored in college in international relations and political science. In fact, he had been a speech major at Washington State.”

“Murrow,” I added, “also passed himself off as the holder of a master’s degree from Stanford University, a degree he never earned.”

Given those lapses, Murrow wouldn’t qualify for high positions in mainstream American journalism today, I write in Getting It Wrong.

Not only that, but Murrow wasn’t especially courageous in taking on the red-baiting Joe McCarthy in a famous report in 1954 on the CBS program, See It Now.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, Murrow “was very late in confronting McCarthy,” doing so “after other journalists had challenged the senator and his tactics for months, even years.”


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Lynch says she could’ve embraced Post’s phony hero story

In Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on November 15, 2010 at 6:55 am

Jessica Lynch was back on the air the other day, doing a television interview that brought more muddle than clarity to the erroneous reporting about her battlefield heroics early in the Iraq War.

Lynch said on CNN’s HLN show that she could have embraced the storyline that said she fought like a female Rambo–and no one would have been the wiser if she had. No one “would have known,” she asserted.

The notion Lynch was a wartime hero, that she had fought like Rambo, was thrust into the public domain by the Washington Post in a botched, front-page story published April 3, 2003. The Post described how Lynch supposedly was fighting to the death in the ambush of her unit in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

The Post also said in its sensational yet thinly sourced  report that Lynch had been shot and stabbed before being overwhelmed and taken prisoner.

The Post published the article beneath the headline: “‘She was fighting to the death.’”

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, none of that was true: Lynch had not fired a shot in the ambush; her weapon had jammed. She was neither shot nor stabbed.

She did suffer shattering injuries in the crash of a Humvee as it tried to flee the ambush. But Lynch was no battlefield hero.

She was taken prisoner and kept in an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until a U.S. special forces team rescued her on April 1, 2003.

On HLN, Lynch said she agreed with interviewer Joy Behar’s suggestion that she could have claimed the hero’s mantle.

“Absolutely,” Lynch said, “because nobody would have known. I mean, everyone in my vehicle was killed that day. So I was the only survivor out of the five of us.

“I mean, so it would have been very easy to take credit for everything.”

However, as I’ve noted previously, embracing the false hero-warrior storyline would have been untenable for Lynch.

The colonel commanding the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, where Lynch was treated after her rescue, told journalists the day after the Post published its hero-warrior story that Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed.

He thus undercut a crucial element of the hero-warrior tale–that Lynch had been shot and stabbed, but had kept fighting. That central component of the narrative was quickly exposed as untrue.

Moreover, it became apparent in the weeks after the Post‘s story that there had been a real hero at Nasiriyah, that the battlefield derring-do initially attributed to Lynch probably were the deeds of Sergeant Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit.

Walters either was left behind or stayed behind during the confusion of the ambush. He laid down covering fire as he fellow soldiers sought to escape.

After running out of ammunition, Walters was captured by Iraqi irregulars, and executed. His body when exhumed bore stab and gunshot wounds.

It’s curious–indeed, in my view inexcusable–that Lynch almost never refers to Walters. She didn’t mention his name in the interview with HLN.

It’s curious, too, that interviews with Lynch never bring up the Washington Post and its singular role in propelling the Lynch case into the public domain. HLN’s Behar certainly didn’t mention the Post and its phony hero-warrior story.


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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

Media myths send ‘misleading’ message of media power

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 13, 2010 at 9:42 am

In this, the second of three installments drawn from Newsbusters‘ lengthy interview about Getting It Wrong, I discuss why it’s vital to debunk media-driven myths, those dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

This installment also includes a discussion about the flawed and over-the-top news coverage of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005.

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

The third and final excerpt from the interview will be posted tomorrow at Media Myth Alert . The interview transcript is accessible here.

NEWSBUSTERS: So why, personally, do you feel that–you obviously feel it’s very important that these myths be exposed as myths. What’s the damage that these myths do if they carry on unquestioned?

CAMPBELL: I think one of the drawbacks [of media-driven myths] is that they … suggest power that the news media typically do not have. Media power in my view tends to be episodic, tends to be situational, nuanced, and it’s typically trumped by other forces and other factors. Government power, police power tend to overwhelm media power on an average basis in most circumstances.

But these stories–about [Walter] Cronkite, about [Edward] Murrow, about Watergate, about [William Randolph] Hearst, and some of the others in the book–typically send a message that the media have great power, to do good or to do harm.

They can start a war, they can end a war, they can alter the political landscape, they can even bring down a president–they’re that powerful. That’s absolutely a misleading message. It’s not how media power is applied or exerted, and that’s an important reason to debunk these myths.

There’s also some inherent importance too in trying to set the record straight to the extent you can. And in that regard, the book is aligned with the fundamental objective of journalism as practiced in this country, of getting it right, getting the story correct. …

NB: And some of the–the Katrina example comes to mind–some of the myths actually have to do with the media–not just a flawed or misleading understanding of events, but a completely fabricated, and made up and very destructive events sometimes. And I say Katrina because there were all these reports of gunfire in New Orleans, of dead bodies being piled up in the Superdome, none of which was true.

CAMPBELL: That’s right. …  Not only that, but the collective sense that those kinds of media reports gave about New Orleans–the place had just collapsed, the city and its people had collapsed into this sort of apocalyptic, Mad Max-like, nightmarish scene–and it served to besmirch the city and its citizens at the time of their direst need.

And that, I think, is just absolutely reprehensible. And that’s the message that we were getting [from the coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in early September 2005]. …

To the credit of the news media, they did go back –many of them, many of these news organizations–and took a look at how they got it wrong. But that tended to be a one-off kind of thing, and placed … inside the papers.

Broadcast media didn’t do much of this at all. … So even to this day, five years on, I still don’t believe the news media have taken full measure of the mistakes they made in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

The tendency is still to blame government–local, state, and certainly federal government–for an inept response. But the story was deeper than that, and it was more complex than that, and that’s the part that the news media got wrong.

NB: And of course one of the consequences of that misreporting was that, as you mention, the federal government especially bore a lot of the blame for what was happening there. And then you also have Murrow taking down perhaps the most notorious cold warrior in our country’s history, you have Cronkite as the standard-bearer for the left’s main cause during the 1960s, you have Woodward and Bernstein taking down a Republican president. Are there political factors at work here, do you think?

CAMPBELL: I think that some of the more enduring myths are those that have appeal across the political spectrum.

The Cronkite moment is one of them–it appeals because this is, for folks on the right, this is a real clear-cut example of how “the news media screwed us in Vietnam, and how they prevented us from winning the war there.” And on the left it’s an example of telling truth to power, and how Walter Cronkite was able to pierce … the nonsense, and make it clear to the Johnson administration that the policy in Vietnam was bankrupt.

Something for everyone.

End of part two

‘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

Inaugurating the Parker-Qualls lecture

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on November 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I inaugurated last night the Parker-Qualls lecture in communications at the University of North Alabama with an audience of some 300 students, faculty, staff, administrators, and townspeople in attendance.

My talk centered on three of the 10 prominent media-driven myths debunked in  my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I discussed the heroic-journalist myth that has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, which ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974; the mythical  “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 that supposedly forced President Lyndon Johnson to realize the futility of the war effort in Vietnam, and The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that reputedly pitched Americans into panic and mass hysteria in 1938.

During the Q-and-A that followed my presentation, I was asked how media audiences can better identify potential media-driven myths, those dubious stories about or by the news media that masquerade as factual. It’s a fine question, with no easy answer.

I advised being wary about media-related stories that just sound too neat and too tidy. The famous vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst–“you furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war”–is a telling example, I said. The quote just seems too good, too perfect to be true.  It deftly captures Hearst as war-monger, but it’s supported by almost no evidence. It’s almost certainly apocryphal.

Media audiences also should apply logic and healthy skepticism to stories about or by the news media and their power, I said, citing The War of the Worlds dramatization as an example. It it really plausible that a radio show–even one as  clever and imaginative as that–really could send tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets in sheer panic and hysteria? It doesn’t seem logical to me.

I also recommended consulting online sources: Some, like Media Myth Alert, are devoted to mythbusting. Even a simple Google search will readily turn skeptical accounts of popular, mediacentric stories.

I also was asked whether there were candidate-media myths that proved to true. Another good question and I couldn’t recall any immediately.

Then I remembered having had suspicions about Joe Namath’s guarantee that the New York Jets would defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. That Namath guaranteed victory sounded to me almost too neat and tidy to be true.  (I privately congratulated myself on remembering being suspicious of that quote,  as it enabled me to mention a football legend who starred at the University of Alabama, a team much followed in Northern Alabama.)

Anyway, it turned out that Namath had indeed made such a guarantee–which I quickly determined in a check of a database of historical newspapers. So that was a candidate myth that proved to be true.

I also was asked what prompted me to write Getting It Wrong. In some ways, I replied, the book built upon previous research. I mentioned my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, in which I addressed the myth of Hearst’s famous vow.

I noted that I returned to that topic in the first chapter of Getting It Wrong, offering additional detail about how the often-retold tale about Hearst’s vow took hold and was diffused.

Another inspiration for the book stemmed from my classes at American University. I’ve often included in my courses references to the “Cronkite Moment,” I noted for example, adding that the more I read about and thought about such anecdotes, the more dubious they seemed to be.

And under scrutiny–in researching them–they dissolved as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

My hosts at the University of North Alabama have been Greg Pitts, chair of the department of communications, and Jim R. Martin, a journalism historian and editor of the scholarly journal American Journalism.


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