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Three of history's biggest media myths

Guest Blogger

Complaints about the media today are as loud as ever. Journalists are blamed for misrepresenting health care reform, for demeaning Sarah Palin, for lionizing Barack Obama. The cries often translate into fears about the dangerous power of the press. Well, how powerful are the media really? In the view of W. Joseph Campbell, a professor of communication at American University, not nearly as powerful as people think. Indeed, some of the biggest media stories in history are merely apocryphal, as Campbell reveals in his book “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism,” coming in July from University of California Press. Here he reveals three examples.

By W. Joseph Campbell

The most famous anecdote in American journalism may be William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow, telegraphed to the artist Frederic Remington in Cuba, to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century.

Or it may be Edward R. Murrow’s television program on CBS in 1954, which supposedly brought an end to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt.

Or it may be the interpretation of Watergate that says The Washington Post’s investigative reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

All three are well-known stories about the exercise of media power, for good or bad. All three anecdotes are often retold.

All three are media-driven myths.

Media myths often confer on the news media far more power and influence than they merit or possess. Media myths also tend to minimize the complexity of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations.

That’s an important reason why Hearst’s vow has lived on for more than 100 years: It is succinct, savory, and easily remembered. It conforms to the popular image of Hearst as war-monger.

Hearst, though, denied making such a statement. The telegram containing his purported pledge has never turned up. And it would have been absurd for Hearst to vow to “furnish the war” because war -- Cuba’s rebellion against Spain’s colonial rule -- was the reason he sent Remington to Cuba. (The Cuban rebellion gave rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.)

The “furnish the war” anecdote can be traced to 1901 and a memoir by another journalist, James Creelman, who did not say when or how he learned story about Hearst’s vow.

The Murrow-McCarthy myth stems from Murrow’s See It Now program on March 9, 1954. See It Now that night dissected McCarthy’s crude investigative techniques and taste for the half-truth -- none of which was unknown to American audiences at the time

Years before the program aired, several prominent journalists -- including the Washington-based syndicated columnist Drew Pearson -- had become searching critics of McCarthy and his tactics.

Interestingly, the myth took hold despite Murrow’s protests. In the weeks following the See It Now program, Murrow said he recognized that at best he had reinforced what others had long said about the red-baiting senator.

Similarly, principals at The Washington Post over the years have disputed the notion their newspaper toppled Nixon, who resigned in 1974. Among them was Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

She was right, but the complexities of Watergate -- the deceit and criminality that characterized the Nixon White House and the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal -- are not readily recalled these days.

What does stand out is a media-centric interpretation, that the dogged reporting of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought Nixon down. It’s a familiar storyline, a proxy for grasping Watergate’s essence while sidestepping its complexities.

That storyline was solidified by the 1976 motion picture, “All the President’s Men,” the screen adaptation of Bernstein and Woodward’s book of the same title. The film casts the reporters as central to unraveling the scandal.

Debunking these and other media myths matters for a variety of reasons. Media myths can and do feed stereotypes. They distort our understanding of the news media and of history. And there is inherent value in setting the record straight.

In that sense, myth-busting is aligned with a central objective of newsgathering -- that of getting it right.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 9, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: Barack Obama, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Edward R. Murrow, Richard Nixon, Washington Post, Watergate, William Randolph Hearst, media criticism, media myths  
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Next: April 11, 2010


But the media *doesn't* try to bust these myths. It lives off of them.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 9, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Now WAIT a second. Are you trying to suggest that Drew Pearson- sort of a Matt Drudge of his time- would have been regarded as seriously as Edward R Murrow's "See It Now?" That cannot possibly make sense. You have created a straw man- that somehow people think that Edward R Murrow was the first person to bring down McCarthyism which is news to me- and knocked it down by suggesting that wackos like Drew Pearson's "Washington Merry-Go-Round" column ALSO harassed McCarthy. Drew Pearson was a gadfly who upset everyone in Washington as an attempt to generate publicity. NO ONE took him seriously.

On the other end of the aisle the left wing press had been gunning for McCarthy for YEARS but no one took them seriously because they were thought of as partisan if not pink during the red scare years.

Honestly, this column is very strange. More later.

When Edward R Murrow

Posted by: bbcrock | April 9, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

See a similar "why didn't anyone listen" story is told about Les Kinsolving's reports on the People's Temple in San Francisco. Les was a conservative Anglican Minister and editorialist who was a boy-who-cried-wolf about every left-leaning or hippy dippy plan in early 1970s San Francisco. He hated the "new religions" of California during that time period. Because of the boy-who-cried-wolf effect nobody paid him any attention when he documented Jim Jones's abuses. And then he accepted a bribe from the South African government to report favorably on it.

The People's Temple WAS WRONG but that does not make Les Kinsolving right. Les remains a damaged journalist with, at best, some improved credibility in the last 30 years. what the People's Temple parishoners needs to be saved from Jones was an impartial witness, an Edward R Murrow, and not some editorializing I-hate-astrology guy.

Get it? It appears you don't understand how journalism works.

Posted by: bbcrock | April 9, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Do you really know anyone who believes the Washington Post brought Nixon down? I know many kids in school and Watergate is pretty well explained- the reporters hammered at the issue so much that a president who was already disliked by the DC power structure was brought down BY AN FBI MOLE CALLED "Deep Throat." Come on, at least interview someone who thinks that Nixon resigned to escape the articles- I mean text books have photos of the hearings, do kids somehow think the hearings took place at the Post offices?

Posted by: bbcrock | April 9, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Disagree that the film version of "All The President's Men" depicted The Post as single-handedly bringing down the president. The final three minutes make that very clear: W&B have to walk back a story and the AP teletype rattles off the Congressional (not journalistic) disclosures that make Nixon's resignation inevitable. The Post is depicted heroically, true, but also as only one of the pressures upon the administration. I agree with your basic premise that one outlet or reporter can sometimes become an unfair public crystalization of a broader movement or problem (See: Miller, Judith) but I think you have it wrong with "All the President's Men."

Posted by: phoenixtom602 | April 10, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

This is a standard black/white analysis that, regrettably, too often pervades the way newspaper people (and, it seems, communications professors) think. Either Woodstein brought down Nixon or they (it) didn't.
I didn't live through the Spanish-American War, but I remember the pressures of the Watergate Era. If Woodward and Bernstein hadn't kept the story going -- in the face of daunting pressure -- Cronkite wouldn't have picked it up, and Congress wouldn't have had the political cover to allow it to play its constitutional role.
Now, after two impeachments in 50 years, people who didn't live it may not realize how radical a concept impeaching a president was -- Americans needed time to get used to it, and newspapers and TV incrementally provided the details over 1-2 years that allowed them to do so.
Am sure a similar thing happened with Murrow and McCarthy. More recently, CBS fired Dan Rather because of political pressure over a story that was largely correct; the pressures were no less in Murrow's day, but CBS (and the Post during Watergate) showed more gumption.

Posted by: jkevlin | April 11, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

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