I'm a news junkie. And, increasingly, a media critic.
Today I read nothing, hear nothing, see nothing from any news outlet that I am not skeptical of.
Objectivity in journalism, if it ever existed, is certainly rare today and many so-called journalists are quite skilled at mixing their personal opinions or editorial outlooks into what are supposedly news stories.
W. Joseph Campbell , a Professor at American University, takes apart "ten of the greatest misreported stories in American journalism" - and he does it wonderfully well.
This is not a dull book. Professor Campbell has a reasonably lively style for an academic.
He has chosen ten stories that have taken on mythical dimensions:
1. Press mogul William Randolph Hearst allegedly fomenting the Spanish-American War.
2. The panic engendered by Orson Welles' "War Of The Worlds" radio broadcast.
3. Murrow and McCarthy
4. The Bay Of Pigs
5. Walter Cronkite on the Vietnam War
6. Bra burning at Atlantic City.
7. Watergate and Woodward/Bernstein.
9. Creating the Jessica Lynch myth
10. Hurricane Katrina.
Using contemporaneous accounts, Campbell provides a solid basis for his claim that the underlying story was turned into a myth by the media - and, usually, without ever admitting or acknowledging it.
His chapter on the falsity of the Edward R. Murrow myth is particularly good. He demonstrates that Murrow himself and his producer Fred Friendly never claimed that they were the instigators of the downfall of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, whose reputation was already quite a way down the slope. In fact, as Campbell points out, Murrow was relatively late to the McCarthy bashing party. Campbell does an excellent job of showing how media myths become canonical truth once the entertainment industry gets hold of them as they did in "Good Night And Good Luck".
He also examines how the media is slow to admit its errors, if it ever does.
Anyone who consumes news will find this book worthwhile. Campbell has done a service to the public, if not journalism itself.
on August 27, 2010
If I gave any credence to the press prior to reading this book, it's completely gone now. The Jessica Lynch and Katrina stories alone were enough to make me scream, and I have a degree in Journalism. Not too long after reading this book, I watched ESPN's 30:30 documentary on Michael Jordan playing minor league baseball. I distinctly remember, at the time he was doing that, all I read and heard was what a mistake for him to be doing this and what a failure he was at it. Turns out all of that was untrue. Jordan applied the very same work ethic to baseball that he had applied to basketball and was actually succeeding in minor league baseball at the age of 31. The most disturbing thing about the documentary came when a Sports Illustrated writer said his story, explaining how much Jordan had improved as a ball player and why he may have what it takes to actually play in the Big Leagues was killed by Sports Illustrated because the press overall, wanted Jordan back in basketball. And if you recall, the story we were handed when he came back to Basketball was that he missed the game and that he had finally given up his stupid dream to play baseball. Turns out that wasn't true either. He came back to basketball because of the baseball strike putting him in a position where he would have to cross a picket line and he was not willing to do that. This book is filled with well known, historical events I'd read about and came to believe as fact, when in fact they were either fabricated out of thin air or greatly embellished. It's a book worth reading.
Joseph Campbell uses 10 common media myths to show you can't always believe what you hear on TV or read in the papers. Repeated often enough, a story can evolve into a "fact". Some of the myths tackled here are relatively innocent (Orson Wells caused mass panic when he did a version of War of the Worlds on radio) or the Bra Burning in Atlantic City. Some are much more serious - Was mega rich Journalist Hearst responsible for whipping up US masses into a frenzy to go to war with Spain?
Campbell is correct in stating you have to know all of the facts before making a judgment. The media's job is to tell & sell a story. The more lurid, shocking, heroic, (fill in the blank), the more it will sell. Reporters, many times not even on the scene are pressured to say something. That has not changed at all, so these examples are good reminders of the old fashioned advice - consider the source & take it with a grain of salt. Jessica Lynch was rescued during a night raid in Iraq, but was the raid staged?
What didn't I like about this book - it's easier to tear down something than it is to build - in each of the stories there are elements of truth, but by attacking a narrow portion of it, you can 'debunk' the myth. For example - maybe Hearst did not say to his employee "you furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war". OK - myth busted. But it does not answer the larger question - how much of Hearst's yellow journalism contribute to the Spanish American War? Certainly Walter Cronkite does not deserve all of the credit for telling Americans we could not win in Vietnam, but as a most respected journalist, he gets a nod. If the author truly wants to make a point, why not write a book that states what really happened?
This is good reading to remind us that you can't always rely on what you're hearing, consider the source, look to hear more than one perspective when you're forming an opinion. If you already understand that, then it's still a good book to skim and see what the other side of the myth has to say. Inaccurate reporting - newspapers, radio, tv, books all have to sell. As long as that's true, you can continue to expect more of the same. The need to feed the 24x7 news cycle only increases the probability of inaacurate reporting.
on May 27, 2016
For any reader, the book offers a wealth of notes and references that can be followed up and researched. 44 pages of notes! Well done. Extensive bibliography, excellent index. This belongs on the shelf of any student of the cold war, of any junior high or high school civics teacher (do they still teach civics?), and of many of our self-impressed journalistic "opinion shapers."
Page 190 has a remarkable insight into the conformity of opinion among professional journalists. The book also highlights the remarkable self-satisfaction of a tame media.
The most recent case examined was the media's complete botch of Hurricane Katrina coverage. Since publication, there have been still more widespread media flops: the BP Horizon spill, the unjustified Trayvon/Michael Brown/Tamir Rice vigils, the pervasive silence on Obama administration scandals, the lack of interest in Deapartment of the Interior and EPA-caused disasters in the American West, the non-reporting of Middle East atrocities against Christians and Jews, the "religion of peace" mantra.
Still, this is a good start. Buy it.
on November 11, 2010
In "Getting It Wrong," journalism prof. W. Joseph Campbell debunks ten media myths:
1) William Randolph Hearst's alleged telegram to Frederick Remington (Spanish-American War, 1897) in which Hearst promised to "furnish the war;"
2) Orson Welles' broadcast of "The War Of The Worlds" caused widespread panic (1938);
3) Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" television broadcast (1954) caused the fall of Communist-hunter Senator Joseph R. McCarthy;
4) The New York Times censored advance news of the Bay of Pigs invasion, at President Kennedy's request (1961);
5) Walter Cronkite's televised report (1968) on Vietnam convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson that continuing the war would be futile;
6) Women's-libbers burned their bras in protest during a Miss America Pageant at Atlantic City (1968)
7) Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's stories in the Washington Post (1972) brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon;
8) A generation of "crack babies" was doomed to permanent brain damage (1989);
9) Private Jessica Lynch fought like Rambo when she and her comrades were ambushed in the Iraq War (2003);
10) The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005) was an orgy of murder, mayhem, and riot.
Campbell's book, bolstered by over 50 dense pages of endnotes, by and large sustains these points, although on a close reading it seems that the "myth" in some of these stories is a matter of degree (Campbell admits that Welles' broadcast did cause some consternation, and that bras were burned in Atlantic City). Few people will be surprised that the media sometimes gets it wrong, but I find it encouraging that corrections, including this book, are freely available; most news junkies will enjoy reading it.
I read this book about six months ago and thought it was OK. It was only after I began to read a bit on this history of journalism and its role in US history that I began to see how pervasive these myths are. For instance, some of the most seminal books on media (The Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian which was the basis for much of Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent for instance) contain myths like Hearst's "you furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war" basis of theses. Others include Edward Morrow taking down McCarthy, the NYT suppressing the Bay of Pigs and "We lost Cronkite, we lost Middle America," all of which are not only stock anecdotes but in fact, the bedrock of most media criticism. Authors use them like filmmakers use well-known songs in nostalgia movies: instant, inarguable mood setters. But they are not true.
on July 21, 2014
This is the best of Journalism. The facts replace urban legend in Professor
Campbell's brilliant research. I read it in three nights and could not put it down.
Rev. Ron Hooker, Yale Graduate
on April 25, 2014
Professor Campbell's GETTING IT WRONG is a welcome addition to my bookshelf of irreverent American history books including: THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, CONGRESSIONAL ANECDOTES, HERBLOCK: A CARTOONIST'S LIFE, FACT & FABLE, I LOVE PAUL REVERE WHETHER HE RODE OR NOT, LEGENDS, LIES, & CHERISHED MYTHS OF AMERICAN HISTORY: LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, ONE-NIGHT STANDS WITH AMERICAN HISTORY, OUR DUMB CENTURY: 100 YEARS OF HEADLINES FROM AMERICA'S FINEST NEWS SOURCE, and POLITICAL BABBLE: THE 1,000 DUMBEST THINGS EVER SAID BY POLITICIANS.
Campbell debunked ten stories that have wrongly become part of historical mythology and have been included in textbooks and other 'definitive' historical sources. I personally was a 'victim' of all but one of these 'wrong' stories. I confess that, at that time, I bought into much of this breathless reporting. I mention some of my personal favorites below:
FRIGHT BEYOND MEASURE? THE MYTH OF THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. The legend of Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast lives on. Grover Mills (the location of this alien attack) recently celebrated an anniversary of this 'frightening' event. In fact, this broadcast, despite some scary headlines, had a minimal impact. Despite press reports of widespread terror and panic, there was virtually no evidence of this, when journalists later checked with police and hospitals. Perhaps it was such a riveting story that editors chose not to publish on-the-ground facts.
MURROW VS. McCARTHY: TIMING MAKES THE MYTH. I knew Mr. Murrow and watched his 1954 McCarthy program. I was deeply affected and savored the later stories about the genesis of this courageous broadcast. On reflection I agree with Campbell that this was a dramatic broadcast, but that it was only a minor nail in the coffin of McCarthyism. Brave senators such as Millard Tydings and Margaret Chase Smith much earlier had sought to skewer McCarthy's outrageous behavior. The New York Post had published a seventeen-part series attacking McCarthy's 'facts' and bizarre behavior. It was the televised Army-McCarthy hearings that definitively torpedoed McCarthy. I still relish the Murrow broadcast as bold journalism, though it may only be marginal history.
THE BAY OF PIGS-NEW YORK TIMES SUPPRESSION MYTH. After Kennedy's Bay of Pigs disaster, a story circulated about how Kennedy had called the New York Times and blocked publication of a detailed story on the impeding invasion of Cuba. Sometime later he purportedly regretted this, saying that, had the article been published, this could have prompted him to call off the invasion. At the time this cast Kennedy in a favorable light and sparked a debate over when a publication should kill a story because of 'national security.' Campbell documented that the entire Kennedy-Times scenario was totally false. At no time was the White House in contact with the Times over the article by Tad Szulc that appeared on April 7, 1961. The day it appeared, Kennedy had a background interview with a Washington Post journalist. In referring to the Szulc article, Kennedy said that he had considered calling to correct the stated size of the invasion force which, after checking with CIA, he said was too high. In fact there had been broad journalist coverage of the gathering invasion force for over six months. In the weeks before the invasion, details were explicit, including reference to a training camp in Louisiana and the departure of Cuban pilots from Miami to Central America. The White House never sought to squash this fictitious Kennedy-Times account. Several years later, a Times official told the true story publicly. Subsequently,Times' officials' memoirs contained detailed insider accounts. Nonetheless, this Kennedy-Times exchange continues to appear in accounts of the Kennedy presidency.
DEBUNKING THE "CRONKITE MOMENT''. I vividly remember the quote ascribed to President Johnson: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." Walter Cronkite, then the most venerated American TV commentator, after a post-Tet visit to Vietnam, declared that the U. S. in Vietnam was "mired in stalemate." At that time I could envisage Johnson making such a statement. It fact it is certain that Johnson had not watched the Cronkite broadcast. Nor was there ever any credible evidence to link this broadcast with Johnson's decision not to run for reelection. This Cronkite-Johnson anecdote was first 'authenticated' in David Halberstram's 1979 THE POWERS THAT BE. There are many credible reasons why Johnson backed down on Vietnam.Probably the Wise Men's recommendations, under Defense Secretary Clark Clifford's guidance, were the final straw Recently I saw the Cronkite/Johnson
quote highlighted in a documentary on Vietnam. Poignant touch, poor history.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE MEDIA: WATERGATE'S HEROIC-JOURNALIST MYTH. Anyone who has seen the movie ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, based on Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein's book, 'know' that courageous,sustained journalism toppled President Nixon. Campbell pointed out that what these two young reporters did was courageous and pretty good leg work that won the Washington Post the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Campbell described the role of Woodward and Bernstein as secondary to the events that resulted in Watergate convictions and the resignation of President Nixon. The role of tough Judge Sirica in the trial of the Watergate burglars prompted James McCord to describe in writing who was behind this break in. The Senate Select Committee on Watergate broke open the case with diligent prosecutors who prompted plea bargains from two of the key figures. When the existence of tape recordings of president Nixon was revealed, White House defense on Watergate swiftly unraveled. The "Saturday Night Massacre,"in which Attorney General Elliot Richardson refused to fire special counsel Archibald Cox, led to a legal fight over release of the Watergate tapes, the initiation of congressional impeachment proceedings, and then the resignation of Nixon. Woodward and Bernstein are barely mentioned in Fred Emery's definitive WATERGATE: THE CORRUPTION OF AMERICAN POLITICS AND THE FALL OF PRESIDENT NIXON, which was the basis for an excellent five-part documentary.
Campbell applied his rigorous debunking to five other incidents of shoddy journalism, including the prelude to the Spanish-American War and the 'superlative' reporting on Hurricane Katrina. Some readers will be offended to learn that what they know ain't so. Others will appreciate that Campbell has done a superb job in correcting shoddy journalism that has become part of American history.
on February 7, 2016
Bay of Pigs, LBJ, and McCarthy/Murrow all myths I where I had been fooled by the press or common take. Now I am informed.
on August 6, 2012
The author never left the classroom, it seems. This reader got the feeling that he was lecturing and "bending over backwards" to justify why he selected a particular "misreported" story. In addition to often being repetitious, the accounts border on the pedantic.