Assertions about the power of the media tend to be blithely made, often without much support or documentation. It’s almost as if assertion is good enough, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
“In the 1970s, the Washington Post’s reporting led to the downfall of President Nixon. In recent months, Facebook accelerated the downfall of governments in the Middle East and Twitter helped to ignite the demonstrations in the last Iranian election.”
The claim about the Post and Nixon’s downfall in the Watergate scandal is one that not even officials at the Post embrace.
Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, declared in 1997, for example:
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
Far more vital to Watergate’s outcome, I note, were the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
As for the assertion in the HuffPo commentary that “Facebook accelerated the downfall of governments in the Middle East” — how many regimes have been toppled? All of two?
Facebook may have had an accelerant effect, but do we know that for sure? What’s the evidence that it did have such effects?
It is far more likely that comparatively moderate dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia fell because they were less inclined to apply severe repression — unlike hardline regimes in Iran, Syria, and Libya, where leaders hesitate little in killing and jailing protestors in large numbers.
“Once the crowds are in the streets, the ability to crush revolutions depends on the ruler’s willingness and ability to shed blood. The more moderate the regimes, like the Shah’s Iran in 1979 or Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, the easier to overthrow. The more brutal the police state, like Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya, President Saleh’s Yemen or President Assad’s Syria, the tougher to bring down.” Facebook, or no Facebook.
Montefiore added that “technology’s effect is exaggerated” in revolutions and would-be revolutions. He noted broad similarities in the upheavals of 1848 and those sweeping North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.
The uprisings in 1848, he wrote, “spread from Sicily to Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Budapest in mere weeks without telephones, let alone Twitter. They spread through the exuberance of momentum and the rigid isolation of repressive rulers.”
Such factors tend to characterize the contagion of protest that emerged this year in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.
What, then, accounts for claims that media content can be decisive in scandals such as Watergate and in upheavals such as those in the Arab world?
Complexity-avoidance certainly is a factor.
Crediting the Washington Post with having brought about Nixon’s resignation or Facebook for having “accelerated the downfall of governments in the Middle East” is to offer simplistic, easy-to-grasp explanations for complex events.
Media myths often arise, I write, “from an impulse to offer easy answers to complex issues, to abridge and simplify topics that are thorny and intricate.”
A related factor is that indulging in media-power myths can be self-serving and self-rewarding. Tales of media power are comforting to journalists, as salve for image and self-worth.
In his review of Getting It Wrong, Andrew Ferguson wrote in Commentary magazine that media myths often “cast the journalist as hero. No wonder they’re so popular … among journalists. We warm ourselves by such tales, draw compensation and comfort from them, which is why they’re taught in our trade schools as elements of basic training.”
Ferguson added, in closing: “Some stories are too good to check.”
And that, too, explains why media-power myths, such as those surrounding Watergate, take hold and endure: They’re just too good to check, too reaffirming not to be true.
Recent and related:
- WaPo ‘played pivotal role’ in Watergate? Think again
- Fact-checking Keller on NYTimes-Bay of Pigs suppression myth
- NYTimes flubs the correction
- When we err, we correct: Still waiting, Bill Keller
- Puncturing media myths: A case for modest media influence
- Newsman tells ‘a simple truth,’ changes history: Sure he did
- On media myths and the ‘golden age’ fallacy
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ plays the Tattered Cover
- Commentary reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’