Late October makes for memorable times in media-mythbusting.
The anniversary of the mythical panic broadcast — Orson Welles’ clever radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds that supposedly touched off nationwide panic and mass hysteria in 1938 — falls this evening.
The second edition includes a new preface, and three new chapters that discuss:
- The myth of the first televised presidential debate in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — notably that television viewers and radio listeners reached dramatically different conclusions about who won the encounter. In Getting It Wrong, I characterize the notion of viewer-listener disagreement as “a robust trope” that’s often cited as “conclusive evidence of the power of television images and the triumph of image over substance.” I also present reasons why the debate of September 26, 1960, was at best a small factor in the outcome of the election, which Kennedy narrowly won.
- The myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph, taken in Vietnam in June 1972, which shows a cluster of children burned or terrorized by an errant napalm attack. I note the photograph has given rise to a variety of media myths — notably that American warplanes dropped the napalm. The attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force. Related myths are that the photograph was so powerful that it turned U.S. public opinion against the war, that it hastened an end to the war, and that it was published on newspaper front pages across the country. (Many leading U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph; many abstained.)
- The spread of bogus quotations via social media and the Internet. Among the examples discussed in the new edition is this phony quotation, attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.” The utterance, I point out, is found in none of Jefferson’s writings. And there is no evidence the third U.S. president smoked hemp or other substances, including tobacco. Even so, the obviously preposterous quote — like many others attributed to important men and women of the past — “is too alluring and oddly amusing to drift away as so much historical rubbish,” I write.
The second edition of Getting It Wrong also explores the tenacity of prominent media myths, calling attention to the roles of celebrities and luminaries — authors, entertainers, and social critics, as well as politicians and talk show hosts — in amplifying dubious or apocryphal tales about the news media and their power.
The upshot of the celebrity effect, I write, is scarcely trivial: The prominence of luminaries helps ensure that the myths will reach wide audiences, making the myths all the more difficult to uproot. The importance of the celebrity effect in the diffusion of media myths has become better recognized, and better documented, in the years since publication in 2010 of the first edition of Getting It Wrong, I point out.
I further note that for journalists, media myths “are very seductive: They place the news media at the epicenter of vital and decisive moments of the past, they tell of journalistic bravado and triumph, and they offer memorable if simplistic narratives that are central to journalism’s amour propre.
“They also encourage an assumption that, the disruption and retrenchment in their field notwithstanding, journalists can be moved to such heights again.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Debate myth emerges anew; 2nd ed. of ‘Getting It Wrong’ due out soon
- CNN launches ‘Race for White House’ series with hoary myth about 1960 debate
- ‘Scorched by American napalm: The myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures
- Exaggerating the power of ‘napalm girl’ photo
- Celebrities pushing media myths: Cavett’s turn in NYTimes
- On Cronkite, Jon Stewart, and America’s ‘most trusted man’
- Scoring political points with ‘follow the money,’ that made-up line
- Why ‘War of the Worlds’ show didn’t panic America
- Why the ‘panic broadcast’ myth lives on
- Final thoughts on a flawed PBS documentary
- ‘We’re trying to toughen you up’: Never happened with Obama and news media
- Just what we need: Barbra Streisand, media critic
- Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon
- ‘A debunker’s work in never done’
- Accepting the 2010 SPJ award for ‘Research about Journalism’
- Launching ‘Getting It Wrong’ at Newseum