W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Getting It Wrong’

Debate myth emerges anew; 2nd edition of ‘Getting It Wrong’ out soon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio on September 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

The runup to Monday’s debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and her Republican foe, Donald Trump, has been accompanied by news accounts about the first debate 56 years ago between major party candidates — and more than a few references to a hoary and tenacious media-driven myth.


Second edition, out soon

The myth has it that television viewers and radio listeners disagreed sharply as to the winner of the debate in 1960 between Democrat John F. Kennedy and his Republican foe, Richard M. Nixon. TV viewers, it is said, thought Kennedy the winner while radio listeners gave their nod to Nixon.

I take up the myth of viewer-listener disagreement in one of three new chapters in the forthcoming second edition of Getting It Wrong: Debunking The Greatest Myths of American Journalism. Other new chapters discuss the myths of the “Napalm Girl” photograph and the reach and velocity of Internet-driven bogus quotations.

The second edition, to be published by University of California Press, is due out in about a month’s time.

In the book, I characterize 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.”

It is, I add, “described often and nonchalantly in books about American presidential politics, in news articles recalling the 1960 debate, and in commentaries ruminating about the legacies and lessons of the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter.”

In news articles, for sure.

Today’s “Saturday essay,” a prominent section front of the weekend Wall Street Journal, invoked the viewer-listener myth declaring, quite nonchalantly and without attribution:

“People who listened on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched on TV thought Kennedy won, and the election was so close that the TV factor might have made a difference.”

Today’s New York Daily News published a look-back at the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate that stated:

“Following the debate, most TV viewers believed that Kennedy had been the victor. Conversely though, radio listeners found that Nixon had a slight edge over Kennedy. And this, arguably, began the process of presidential candidates and their camps being completely obsessed with a perfect TV image.”

Similarly, an article posted the other day at the online site of Voice of America asserted:

“[W]hat the 1960 debates showed was how television was changing politics. In the first debate, radio listeners said Nixon won. Those who watched on television said Kennedy was the better debater.”

Pacific Standard magazine offered a waffling, diffident embrace of the myth, stating:

“According to conventional wisdom (which may or may not be true) the charismatic Kennedy was seen as the clear winner by those who watched the proceedings on television, while the call was far closer among those who heard it on the radio.”

In this case, “conventional wisdom” is a media myth: The notion of viewer-listener disagreement is, I write, “a dubious bit of political lore.”

I note in the new chapter that the myth of viewer-listener disagreement “was utterly demolished” nearly 30 years ago in a scholarly journal article by David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Writing in Central States Speech Journal, Vancil and Pendell reviewed and dissected the few published surveys that hinted at a viewer-listener disconnect in the Kennedy-Nixon debate of September 26, 1960.

Central to the claim that radio audiences believed Nixon won the debate was a survey conducted by Sindlinger & Company. The Sindlinger survey indicated that radio listeners thought Nixon had prevailed in the debate, by a margin of 2-to-1.

Vancil and Pendell pointed out that the Sindlinger survey included more than 2,100 respondents — of whom only 282 said they had listened on radio. Of that number, 178 (or fewer than four people per state) “expressed an opinion on the debate winner,” they wrote. The sub-sample was decidedly too small few and unrepresentative to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions, Vancil and Pendell noted.

Not only was it unrepresentative, the sub-sample failed to identify from where the radio listeners were drawn. “A location bias in the radio sample,” Vancil and Pendell wrote, “could have caused dramatic effects on the selection of a debate winner. A rural bias, quite possible because of the relatively limited access of rural areas to television in 1960, would have favored Nixon.”

Those and other defects render the Sindlinger survey meaningless in offering insights to reactions of radio listeners.

[CNN series invokes Kennedy-Nixon debate myth]

I seek in the second edition of Getting It Wrong to build upon the fine work of Vancil and Pendell and present contemporaneous evidence from a detailed review of debate-related content in three dozen large-city U.S. daily newspapers. Examining the news reports and commentaries of those newspapers turned up no evidence to support the notion of viewer-listener disagreement.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-7-56-07-am“Even the oblique hints of viewer-listener disagreement were vague and few,” I write, adding:

“The most proximate reference to the purported phenomenon appeared two days after the debate in a column by Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill wrote that he had arranged for ‘a number of persons [to] listen to the great debate on radio. It is interesting to report they unanimously thought Mr. Nixon had the better of it. They could not see him. They listened without the diversion of looks and the consequent straying of the mind to that subject.'”

While intriguing in its prescience, I point out that McGill’s experiment “was more speculative than revealing. His column did not report how many people he had recruited to listen to the debate on radio, nor did it describe their party affiliations or where they lived. It was not a representative sampling; obviously, it was not meant to be.”

Rather, I write, it was an opportunity “to ruminate about the novelty of television as an instrument of political campaigns.” McGill called the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debate “a triumph for television,” which it was. But it produced no significant disconnect among television viewers and radio listeners.


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About the ‘Murrow Moment’: A ‘tipping point’ that wasn’t

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New Yorker, Television on August 13, 2016 at 9:45 am

The “Murrow Moment” has become a fashionable phrase in American journalism, invoked to justify suspending impartiality in reporting on Donald Trump and his often-incendiary, gaffe-prone campaign for president.


He of the ‘Murrow Moment’

Invoking the phrase also allows contemporary reporters to associate themselves with the presumed greatness and courage of Edward R. Murrow, a legendary journalist for CBS News in the 1940s and 1950s. “Murrow Moment” is an allusion to a half-hour television program in 1954 when Murrow took on Joseph R. McCarthy, a menacing, red-baiting U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

“Murrow Moment” has been in circulation for a couple of months, at least since an essay at Huffington Post invoked the phrase. It has picked up intensity in recent weeks, following a commentary published in Columbia Journalism Review under the headline, “For journalists covering Trump, a Murrow moment.”

“After months of holding back,” the commentary declared, “modern-day journalists are acting a lot like Murrow, pushing explicitly against Donald Trump, the … Republican presidential nominee.”

The commentary gave prominent reference to Murrow’s program about McCarthy, stating:

“As Edward R. Murrow wrapped up his now-famous special report condemning Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he looked into the camera and said words that could apply today. ‘He didn’t create this situation of fear—he merely exploited it, and rather successfully,’ Murrow said of McCarthy. Most of Murrow’s argument relied on McCarthy’s own words, but in the end Murrow shed his journalistic detachment to offer a prescription: ‘This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent—or for those who approve,’ he said. ‘We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.'”

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 6.26.02 PM

Columbia Journalism Review headline

In reality, Murrow’s half-hour report on McCarthy in 1954 wasn’t all that extraordinary.

Courageous, it was not.

But over the years the program has taken on mythical dimension, that it was, in the words of another recent Huffington Post essay, a “tipping point” that “helped bring about the end of McCarthy.”

Murrow’s program was a lacerating attack on McCarthy. But it was no “tipping point,” for reasons that include:

  • Murrow took on McCarthy years after other journalists directed pointed and sustained attention to McCarthy’s brutish tactics — and in some instances paid a price for having done so. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, McCarthy had no more implacable critic in journalism than Drew Pearson of the syndicated muckraking column, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Pearson first challenged McCarthy in February 1950, shortly after the senator began his communists-in-government campaign, and persisted in questioning the substance of McCarthy’s accusations. That was four years before Murrow’s program.
    McCarthy became so unnerved by Pearson’s work that he physically assaulted the columnist in December 1950, in the cloakroom of the exclusive Sulgrave Club on DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. Then-senator Richard M. Nixon broke up the confrontation.
  • ŸŸŸMcCarthy’s favorability rating had hit the skids well before Murrow’s program, which aired March 9, 1954. As I discussed in Getting It Wrong, Gallup Poll data show that McCarthy’s appeal crested in December 1953, when 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of him. McCarthy’s favorable rating dropped to 40 percent by early January 1954, and to 39 percent in February 1954, when an almost identical number of Americans viewed him unfavorably. By mid-March 1954, the proportion had shifted to 32 percent favorable and 47 percent unfavorable.
  • Murrow’s program benefited from coincidental good timing, airing during the week when the senator’s fortunes took a prominent and decisive turn for the worse — for reasons unrelated to Murrow.
    “The pivotal moment of the decisive week,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, was “the disclosure … about the Army’s allegations that McCarthy and his subcommittee’s counsel, Roy Cohn. The Army charged they had exerted pressure in an attempt to gain favored treatment for G. David Schine, Cohn’s friend and assistant who had been drafted into military service.” The Army’s complaint became the subject of televised hearings in spring and summer 1954, which hastened McCarthy’s downfall. His conduct was condemned by the Senate in December 1954.

Interestingly, Murrow in 1954 downplayed the presumptive effects of his program about McCarthy. According to Jay Nelson Tuck, television critic for the then-liberal New York Post, Murrow was “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter.”

Tuck further wrote that Murrow “said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Fred Friendly, Murrow’s collaborator and co-producer, also rejected the notion that the program on McCarthy was dispositive to the senator’s decline. Friendly 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.”

The “Murrow moment” commentary in Columbia Journalism Review included a reference to Murrow’s having “shed his journalistic detachment” in calling out McCarthy in 1954.

The passage brought to mind an eye-opening discussion in A.M. Sperber’s biography of Murrow, in which she reported that Murrow had privately advised Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign on “the finer points of speaking to the camera.”

Sperber wrote in Murrow: His Life and Times that even though the Republican incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was sure to win to reelection,  Murrow agreed “to help the Democrats.” Sperber described Murrow’s decision as “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.”

So why did Murrow discreetly “shed his journalistic detachment” to advise Stevenson?

“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.

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

Additionally, according to a New Yorker article in 2006, Murrow thought “seriously about running for the Senate from New York as a Democrat” in 1958 and “consulted privately with both [CBS chief executive William] Paley and Harry Truman,” the Democratic former president, before deciding not to seek the office.


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It would be mired in myth: Spielberg considering a ‘Cronkite Moment’ movie?

In Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Television on June 15, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Walter Cronkite was months behind media rivals in characterizing the war in Vietnam as a military “stalemate.” He shifted his views about the conflict well after public opinion had begun to turn against the war. And Cronkite’s reporting for CBS News at supposedly a crucial moment in 1968 was tepid and far less adamant than that of some competing news media.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

Whether movie director Steven Spielberg is aware of those aspects of the back story to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 is not known.

But it may matter, given a report from Hollywood that Spielberg is contemplating a movie that effectively would embrace the myths that have grown up around the presumed effects of Cronkite’s on-air assessment.

Deadline Hollywood said yesterday at its online site that the Cronkite-movie project, while tentative, would “focus on Cronkite’s relationship with the Vietnam War and the role that America’s most trusted newsman played in turning public opinion against the increasingly un-winnable conflict. So influential was the CBS Evening News anchor that then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson is believed to have remarked, ‘If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.'”

If that’s even a rough outline of the prospective Spielberg project, the resulting movie would be steeped in media myth. Indeed, Deadline Hollywood’s descriptive paragraph quoted above incorporated no fewer than three myths, specifically about:

  • “Most trusted”: It was not until 1972 when Cronkite began to be called the “most trusted” newsman; even then, the characterization was the inspiration of the CBS advertising department and based on research that can only be described as flimsy.
  • Public opinion: Evidence is scant at best that Cronkite’s pronouncement about Vietnam in February 1968 had any effect in turning American public opinion against the war. Indeed, Cronkite was more follower than leader in the public’s shifting views about Vietnam.
  • The president’s reaction: There is no evidence that Johnson ever said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Or anything to that effect.

It is known that Johnson did not watch Cronkite’s report about Vietnam when it aired on February 27, 1968. The president then was in Austin, Texas, attending a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally, a long-time political ally who turned 51 that day.

About the time Cronkite was intoning his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was jesting about Connally’s age; he wasn’t lamenting the loss of an anchorman’s support. “Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Johnson in the days and weeks following the Cronkite report was adamantly and publicly hawkish about the war, asserting in a speech in mid-March 1968, for example:

“Make no mistake about it. … We are going to win.”

What’s more, Cronkite said nothing in his report about the war that hadn’t been said previously by leading journalists. By early 1968, “stalemate” was an exceedingly unoriginal way of characterizing the conflict.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 2.41.21 PM

Months before the ‘Cronkite Moment’

In August 1967, for example, the New York Times published a lengthy analysis that declared “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The analysis also said:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here [in Saigon, capital of what was South Vietnam], except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times report was published on its front page beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

The Times, moreover, seemed to anticipate Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement by asserting in an editorial published February 8, 1968, three weeks before Cronkite’s program:

“Politically as well as militarily, stalemate increasingly appears as the unavoidable outcome of the Vietnam struggle.”

In his report on February 27, 1968, Cronkite declared:

“To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.”

Cronkite’s assessment was far less assertive than the observations offered less than two weeks later by Frank McGee of the rival NBC network. “The war,” McGee said on an NBC News program that aired March 10, 1968, “is being lost by the [Johnson] administration’s definition.”

Not stalemated. Lost.

And four days before Cronkite’s report, the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam “may be doomed” and that “everyone had better be prepared for the bitter taste of defeat beyond America’s power to prevent.”

Interestingly, Cronkite for years dismissed the notion his “mired in stalemate” commentary was of great consequence.

In his 1997 memoir, Cronkite said his “stalemate” assessment was for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.” Cronkite repeated the analogy in the years immediately afterward, saying in 1999 on a CNN program:

“I think our broadcast simply was another straw on the back of a crippled camel.”

Not until late in his life did Cronkite embrace the supposed impact of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” telling Esquire in 2006: “To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, popular support for the war had begun slipping months before the Cronkite report. The shift in opinions had become apparent by Fall 1967.

A Gallup poll conducted in October 1967 found for the first time that a plurality of Americans — 47 percent — believed that sending troops to fight in Vietnam had been a mistake.

Slightly more than two years earlier, only 24 percent of respondents said they thought it was a mistake to have deployed American forces to Vietnam.

Gallup asked the question again in a poll completed on the day that Cronkite’s program aired: Forty-nine percent of the respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not been.

In April 1968, Gallup found that 48 percent of respondents said U.S. military intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake; 42 percent said it had not.

Moreover, print journalists had detected a softening of support for the war well before Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” assessment.

In December 1967, for example, a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, Don Oberdorfer, noted that summer and fall that year had “been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”


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‘Question everything you see, read or hear’ — including narratives about military, Jessica Lynch

In Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 30, 2016 at 2:44 am

“Question everything you see, read or hear.

“Test it. Analyze it. Prove it.”

That’s useful if time-worn advice for journalists, even if they are not always inclined to embrace such guidance. The reminders were offered up over the weekend in a column in the Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon.

Lynch_headline_PostIt wasn’t the advice that interested Media Myth Alert; it was the column’s reference to the hero-warrior myth about Jessica Lynch.

The column-writer, Dick Hughes, who is the newspaper’s editorial page editor, invoked the Lynch case in making the point about the importance of questioning everything. In doing so, Hughes stumbled over his own well-intentioned advice.

“Recall,” he wrote, “how George W. Bush’s military, early in the Iraq War, converted soldier Jessica Lynch into a hero for valiantly fighting her ambushers until being taken captive. The national media bought that compelling line, despite what I thought were disconcerting holes in it.”

Had Hughes challenged or questioned the claim about the military’s having concocted the tale about Lynch’s battlefield heroics, he would have determined that it was a false narrative.Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 1.15.45 PM

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the military did not push the tale of Lynch fighting her attackers: That narrative was thrust into the public domain exclusively by the Washington Post.

In an electrifying, front-page article on April 3, 2003, the Post reported that Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army private, had fought fiercely in the ambush of her Army unit in Nasariyah, in southern Iraq, “firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her….”

Above the dramatic account — which the Post vaguely attributed to “U.S. officials” — ran the headline:

“‘She was fighting to the death.’”

As it turned out, the Post’s “fighting-to-the-death” story was wrong in all important details.

Lynch never fired a shot during the ambush; her weapon jammed. She suffered no gunshot wounds but was badly injured in the crash of her Humvee, as she and four comrades of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company, tried to escape the attack. The others were killed; Lynch was taken prisoner and moved to an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death until rescued by a U.S. special forces team on April 1, 2003.

Two days later, the Post  published its report about Lynch’s heroics. The newspaper has never disclosed the identity of the “U.S. officials” to whom it attributed the bogus account about Lynch.

We do know, however, that “George W. Bush’s military” was not pushing the story: We know this from Vernon Loeb, then the Post’s defense correspondent who shared a byline with Susan Schmidt on the hero-warrior story about Lynch. No journalist was with Lynch’s unit in the attack; Loeb and Schmidt reported the story from Washington.

As I noted in  Getting It Wrong, Loeb went on NPR’s Fresh Air program in December 2003 and stated, unequivocally:

“Our sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.” Rather, Loeb said, they were “some really good intelligence sources” in Washington.

Loeb also asserted in the NPR interview that Pentagon officials “wouldn’t say anything about Jessica Lynch.”

He dismissed the interviewer’s suggestion that the Post’s “fighting to the death” report was the consequence of the Pentagon’s cynical manipulation.

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none,” said Loeb, who nowadays is managing editor at the Houston Chronicle. “I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

On another occasion, Loeb was quoted by the New York Times as saying:

“Far from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.” (In addition, Victoria Clarke, then a Pentagon spokeswoman, told the Associated Press in June 2003: “We were downplaying [the Lynch story]. We weren’t hyping it.” The article Loeb and Schmidt wrote about Lynch included this passage: “Pentagon officials said they had heard ‘rumors’ of Lynch’s heroics but had no confirmation.”)

Seldom do Loeb’s disclaimers find their way into articles, columns, blog posts, and other media discussions about the Lynch case. It’s much easier — and makes for a better story — to embrace the false narrative about the military’s supposed duplicity.

If the military hadginned up” the hero-warrior story about Lynch, “it failed miserably in keeping the ruse from unraveling,” I pointed out in Getting It Wrong. The day after the Post’s “‘fighting to the death’” article was published, the head of the Army hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, told reporters that Lynch had been neither shot nor stabbed – undercutting central elements of the hero-warrior tale.

In his column, Hughes does allude to the confusion that surrounded Lynch’s supposed heroics at Nasiriyah. “All signs now point to the real hero in the ambush being Sgt. Donald Walters, who grew up in Salem. He gave his life while returning fire and protecting his comrades,” Hughes writes.

Indeed, the derring-do misattributed to Lynch probably were the heroics of Donald Walters, a sergeant-cook in the 507th who was captured after his ammunition ran out, taken prisoner, and executed soon after.


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Gushing about ‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie — and ignoring the myths it propelled

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 18, 2016 at 6:32 am

ATPM movie posterWhen it was released 40 years ago this month, the cinematic version of the Watergate book  All the President’s Men was the topic of soaring reviews.

Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that “the real excitement of ‘All The President’s Men’ is in watching two comparatively inexperienced reporters stumble onto the story of their lives and develop it triumphantly, against all odds.” He was referring to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were played in the movie by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively.

The Long Island newspaper Newsday gushed even more, declaring:

“’All the President’s Men’ is a terrific movie – the best film about newspaper reporters ever made, one of the most enjoyable action pictures you’ll see this year and a classic example of how to make an important social and political statement within the framework of an unpretentious detective story whose revelations speak for themselves.”

And so it went for a movie that won four Academy Awards but lost the best-picture Oscar to Rocky.

The gushing for All the President’s Men resumed this month as a variety of media outlets took the occasion of the 40th anniversary to celebrate the film anew.

Michael Gaynor of Washingtonian magazine put together a lengthy oral history about All the President’s Men, which he hailed as the “most defining movie of Washington.” Meanwhile, Newsday posted its 1976 review online.

In a lengthy retrospective for the Los Angeles Review of Books,the associate producer of All the President’s Men, Jon Boorstin, called the movie “a miracle.” He further described it as an “impossible conjunction of talent and opportunity, collaboration and ego, trust, power, and luck. And then more luck.”

And the Washington Post — inclined as it is to bouts of self-absorption — published at its online site a fawning essay that gushed at the granular level, telling us about Woodward and Bernstein’s favorite scenes in All the President’s Men.

What went unmentioned in the anniversary’s nostalgic glow was the movie’s significant contributions to the mythology of Watergate, notably the notion that Woodward and Bernstein‘s reporting — the movie’s centerpiece — brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The movie portrayed Woodward and Bernstein as central and essential to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

They weren’t.

That they were is a mythical, media-centric trope that emerged long ago as the dominant narrative of Watergate, the principal way of understanding the scandal.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth, a simplistic version that sweeps away the complexities of Watergate, leaving an easy-to-grasp explanation for Nixon’s downfall in August 1974.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men, as I noted in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, promoted this version — what I called an “unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.

All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured,” I wrote.

I further noted in Getting It Wrong that rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions in fact “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I wrote, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

The movie contributed to Watergate’s mythology in another way: It brought into the vernacular what has become the scandal’s most memorable line — “follow the money.

It’s often said that “follow the money” was sage counsel offered by the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source, with whom Woodward periodically met as the scandal unfolded.

The guidance to “follow the money” supposedly was crucial to Woodward and Bernstein in unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Except that it really wasn’t.

The line was written into All the President’s Men for dramatic effect  and spoken by the actor Hal Holbrook who played a marvelously conflicted, raspy, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

“Deep Throat” the source never told Woodward to “follow the money.”


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WaPo: Now drinking the Watergate Kool-Aid?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm

The dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal is that dogged reporting by the Washington Post uncovered evidence that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

wapo-logoIt’s a tempting if reductive media-centric myth that principals at the Post have routinely rejected over the years. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said, for example:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate, concurred, if less eloquently. He told the American Journalism Review in 2004:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

'To say the press brought down Nixon ...'

Woodward: ‘To say the press brought down Nixon …’

But occasionally in recent years, the Post’s myth-avoidance on Watergate has slipped. In July 2014, for example, John Kelly, a local columnist for the newspaper, referred to Woodward’s reporting partner on Watergate, Carl Bernstein, as “the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.”

And today, the front page of the Post’sOutlook” section features an essay about the appeal of conspiracy theories; the essay closes with this passage:

“It’s worth remembering that, very occasionally, conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Just ask the two cheeky journalists at this newspaper who followed a crazy conspiracy theory and brought down a sitting president.”

The reference to “cheeky journalists,” of course, is to Woodward and Bernstein. And “crazy conspiracy theory” means the Watergate scandal (which indeed may have been a bit “crazy”). But “brought down a sitting president”? That was far beyond the power of the Post, or any newspaper, to accomplish.

As I discussed in my 2010 myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions of  “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I noted, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

It’s an interpretation that essentially endorsed the view of Michael Getler who, as the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The Post’s contribution to Watergate’s outcome was marginal, the mythology notwithstanding.

Given the evidence — and the traditional reluctance of principals at the Post to embrace the mythical narrative of Watergate — it’s puzzling why “Outlook” editors allowed the erroneous “cheeky journalists” passage into print.

We’ll see if the Post publishes a correction.


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NYTimes invokes Watergate myth in writeup about journalists and movies

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm

There’s no doubt Hollywood is an important reason why Watergate’s dominant narrative has it that Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and the Washington Post toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Not the Post's doing

Not the Post’s doing

It is a heroic narrative that found mention today’s New York Times, in an article discussing two movies about journalists that could be contenders this year for Academy Awards.

One of them is Truth, a perversely titled film that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used bogus documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. No way does that movie deserve Oscar consideration. The other contender-film is titled Spotlight.

But what most interests Media Myth Alert is the Times article’s blithe and mistaken reference to “the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Post had no such effect, however much the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men, encouraged that notion. As I noted in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, the movie promotes an “unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.

All the President’s Men allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. And it is a message that has endured.”

Indeed, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the movie’s release and the notion that Woodward and Bernstein toppled Nixon remains the principal way Watergate is understood, a version that disregards and diminishes the far more accurate interpretation of what led to Nixon’s fall in August 1974.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

Principals at the Post have, over the years, rejected the simplistic notion that the newspaper’s reporting led Nixon to resign.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said 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.”

In 2005, Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Not even Woodward has embraced the heroic-journalist myth. He once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

And in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

Today’s article wasn’t the first time the Times has turned to the mythical claim about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

In a cover article in 2014, the Times Sunday magazine mentioned Woodward and Bernstein, saying they “actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.”

And in 2008,in an article about Woodward’s finally introducing his high-level Watergate source to Bernstein, the Times referred to the “two young Washington Post reporters [who] cracked the Watergate scandal and brought down President Richard M. Nixon.”


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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2015

In Anniversaries, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, New York Times, Scandal, Spanish-American War, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on December 29, 2015 at 11:27 am

Media Myth Alert called attention in 2015 to the appearance of prominent media-driven myths, including cases in which celebrities took up and repeated dubious tall tales about journalists and their work.

Here is a rundown of the blog’s five top posts of the year, followed by a roster of other notable mythbusting writeups of 2015.

Celebrities pushing media myths: Garrison Keillor and Hearst’s “furnish the war” vow (posted April 29): I noted in 2015 that the mythical tale about William Randolph Hearst’s vowing to “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century has become zombie-like: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

Keillor_WritersAlmanacThe hoary old myth received a boost in April when, on the 152d anniversary of Hearst’s birth, the humorist and radio personality, Garrison Keillor, blithely invoked the unsubstantiated anecdote, which reinforces the superficial and misleading notion of Hearst as war-mongering newspaper publisher.

“In 1898,” Keillor told listeners of his “Writer’s Almanac” podcast that airs on NPR, “Hearst sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The tale is one of the best-known in American journalism, and it is almost certainly apocryphal, for reasons described in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.



Notably, the anecdote lives on despite the absence of supporting documentation: The telegraphed messages that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up. And the Spanish authorities who controlled incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic in Cuba surely would have intercepted and called attention to Hearst’s incendiary message, had it been sent.

Moreover, the sole original source of the “furnish the war” anecdote, James Creelman, a portly, cigar-chomping journalist prone to hyperbole and exaggeration, never said how or where he learned about the purported Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

And almost no one remembers that Hearst denied having sent such a message.

By the way, the transcript of Keillor’s remarks about Hearst and Remington remains posted at the “Writer’s Almanac” Web site. Uncorrected.

Mark Felt, Watergate’s “Deep Throat”: Why is he biopic worthy? (posted November 27): W. Mark Felt, a disgraced former senior FBI official best-known as a secret source in the Watergate scandal, is to receive hero’s treatment in a biopic to be called Felt.

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Peter Landesman, who is to produce and direct the film, was quoted last week as saying Felt will be akin to “a Shakespearean melodrama, a massively powerful story. It’s like a domestic spy thriller but there’s a very powerful, almost Shakespearean thing happening inside his home, but it will incorporate all those elements.”

But why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy?

He was no noble or heroic figure.

Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the FBI’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the agency’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.

FBI agents who conducted the illegal break-ins went through “desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen,” according to an account in the New York Times. “With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents” belonging to relatives of Weather radicals.

In 1980, Felt was convicted of felony charges related to those warrantless break-ins, which were known in the FBI as “black bag jobs.” He was fined $5,000 but not sentenced to prison for the crimes.

The following year, Felt received an unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan.

In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged at trial having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”

Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller argued that the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan trips over the “Cronkite Moment” myth (posted August 30): In late summer, the Wall Street Journal’s prominent weekend columnist, Peggy Noonan, attempted to explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump and his soaring presidential candidacy.

In doing so, Noonan tripped over the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

Peggy Noonan


That “moment” was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared on the air that the U.S. military effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” Cronkite’s assessment supposedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in visceral reaction, said something to the effect of:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

But as I discussed in  Getting It Wrong, Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president then was attending a black-tie birthday party in Texas for Governor John Connally.

I also noted in Getting It Wrong that by 1968, “stalemate” was hardly a novel or shocking way to characterize the Vietnam War: “Stalemate” had circulated in the news media months before Cronkite spoke the word on the air.

In her column, Noonan referred to shifting contours in American politics that have boosted Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. She also wrote:

“Old style: If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America. New style: How touching that an American president once thought if you lost a newsman you’d lost a country.”

Noonan’s reference to the “Cronkite Moment” may have been indirect and a bit confusing, given the topic of her column. But there was no doubt she was treating as authentic one of American journalism’s most tenacious myths.

Another prominent columnist, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, also referred to the “Cronkite Moment” in 2015.

Dowd did so in February, in a commentary that ruminated about the bizarre falsehoods told by Brian Williams, the disgraced former anchor of NBC Nightly News, about an assignment to Iraq in 2003: Williams claimed to have been aboard a U.S. Army helicopter when it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Dowd, after noting that network evening news shows are shells of their much-watched former selves, turned implicitly to the “Cronkite Moment,” writing that CBS anchorman had “risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.”

Except Cronkite didn’t say “we were losing.” He said the war was stalemated and that negotiations might eventually prove to be the way out. But saying so posed no risk to Cronkite’s career. By then, it was commonplace, and safe, to say the war had reached a stalemate.

No, Politico: Ben Bradlee’s WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon (posted May 27): In an account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Politico invoked the hardy media myth that the Post’s reporting on the scandal “brought down a president.”

Politico logoOf course, it had no such effect, as Bradlee himself had said, on the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate–the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

On Meet the Press in June 1997, Bradlee said “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee, who died in 2014, was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in conspiring to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin at the DNC headquarters.

As I noted in Getting It Wrong the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s presidency represents a fundamental misreading of history that diminishes “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, bipartisan congressional panels, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon must turn over to prosecutors the tapes that captured his guilty participation in the attempted coverup.

Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal. Modest at best. They were hardly decisive, Politico’s claim notwithstanding.

Jorge Ramos, media-myth-teller (posted September 5): The international reach of media-driven myths was best defined in 2015 when Jorge Ramos, the self-important anchorman for Univision, went on an ABC News program and claimed that the Washington Post’s reporting of Watergate forced Nixon’s resignation.

He stated:

“I think that, as a reporter, many times, you have to take a stand. … And the best examples of journalism that I have—Edward R. Murrow against McCarthy; Cronkite during the Vietnam War, or the Washington Post reporters forcing the resignation of Richard Nixon—that’s when reporters challenge those who are in power.”

Ramos, who has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America,” invoked a similar claim a few days later in a commentary posted at the online site of AM, a newspaper in Mexico.

What prompted these claims was Ramos’ conduct a news conference convened by Donald Trump. Ramos insisted on posing a question before being called on, a showboating moment that led to his being escorted from the room.

In any event, Ramos was wrong about the Post, its reporters, and Watergate.

Not even the newspaper’s principal figures during the Watergate period embraced the notion that the Post forced Nixon to quit in August 1974.

Notable among them was the publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham. She said 1997:

“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.”


Other memorable posts of 2015:

WaPo move to new quarters stirs retelling of hero-journalist myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2015 at 10:34 am

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to stir up a media myth.

Consider, for example, the recent move of the Washington Post to new quarters in the capital — a move the newspaper reported on to absurd excess.

Leaving prompts myth-telling

Leaving this mythical place

The Guardian newspaper of London took up the development today in a report online, posted beneath the headline: “Washington Post bids farewell to office where it broke Watergate.”

The Guardian described the Post’s former home on 15th Street NW as the place “where Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down president Richard Nixon.” It’s almost as if any excuse will do to trot out the bromide that the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through their dogged reporting for the Post, exposed the crimes of Watergate and forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Untenable though it is, the heroic-journalist trope has become the dominant narrative of Watergate — an engaging but simplified account of the country’s gravest political crisis that not even principals at the Post have embraced.

Woodward, for example, once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

On another occasion, Woodward declared that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997: “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.”

True enough. So why does the myth persist? What explains its tenacity in the face of denial, repudiation, and debunking?

An important explanation is that the epic scandal has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

The heroic-journalist interpretation makes Watergate accessible.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that explanation strips away the scandal’s daunting complexity, does away with the intricate investigations that slowly exposed high-level misconduct, leaving the Post, Woodward, and Bernstein as celebrated stand-ins “for understanding Watergate and its denouement.”

It’s a trope that reassures journalists, too, reminding them in these unsettled times that the work of their predecessors supposedly had significant and memorable consequences. As the inimitable media critic Jack Shafer wrote the other day, journalists are “sentimental creatures who draw on the past to self-mythologize.”

To indulge in the heroic-journalist trope is to indulge in dubious history. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Rolling up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate, I wrote, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Guardian was not alone in recalling the heroic-journalist myth as the Post staff decamped a short distance to an address on K Street NW.

In a dispatch last week, the French new agency, Agence France-Presse, described the Post’s erstwhile home as “the scene of groundbreaking reporting on the Watergate scandal by young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.”

The Post’s reporting, in fact, was quite marginal to Wategate’s outcome.


More from Media Myth Alert:

The mythical ‘panic broadcast’: Tired cliché of Halloween

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2015 at 9:16 am

Welles and The War of the Worlds

The days around Halloween can be among the most myth-indulgent of the year, given the many media reminders about The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that aired 77 years ago tonight.

The hour-long show, which aired on CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles, was so vivid in telling of the invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays that tens of thousands of Americans supposedly were convulsed in panic and mass hysteria.

Or as the Indianapolis Star put it the other day, “Pandemonium swept the nation that evening” in 1938.

Or as the Louisville Courier-Journal said about the program, “unsuspecting listeners reacted in horror while listening to descriptions of a devastating landing of ‘ferocious Martian invaders.'”

And so it goes: Late October brings predictable references to the “panic broadcast” of 1938 and to the upheaval it supposedly caused. It’s so predictable as to have become a cliché.

That the program set off widespread panic and mass hysteria also is a hoary media myth, a myth that offers deceptive messages about the influence radio wielded over listeners decades ago and about the media’s capacity to sow terror and alarm. There is scant evidence that The War of the Worlds had such effects: Whatever fright there was that night 77 years ago did not reach nationwide proportions.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, had panic spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s supposed panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with a long ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely hyped and overblown?

It is, for starters, famous, or infamous, for what it suggests about the presumptive dark power of mass media.

It is, moreover, a deliciously clever story, one well-suited for retelling at Halloween.

Indeed, the show is often rebroadcast, or re-enacted, this time of year — which serves to reintroduce and celebrate the performance, keeping it fresh in the popular consciousness.

The “panic broadcast” also lives on because it allows contemporary media consumers to indulge, if quietly and privately, in a bit of smugness — that we would never be so gullible as to believe such a media hoax; we are too media-savvy. But back then, in the 1930s when radio was still new, they weren’t so sophisticated: They were more naïve, more easily duped by exaggerated media messages.

This is known as the third-person effect, the belief that others are more credulous, or more susceptible to media influences, than we are.

Such smugness has helped keep alive the tired Halloween cliché of The War of the Worlds.


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