Editor’s Note: W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of six books including Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism (University of California Press, 2017). He also has written 1995: The Year the Future Began (University of California Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @wjosephcampbell. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. This is the next installment in CNN Opinion’s series on the challenges facing the media as it is under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.
The persistent whiff of scandal surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency has, perhaps inevitably, encouraged speculation about which journalists might be considered the next Woodward and Bernstein.
What forced Nixon’s resignation was evidence he obstructed justice by conspiring to divert the FBI’s investigation away from Watergate’s seminal crime – the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972. Unearthing proof of Nixon’s misconduct required the combined efforts of federal prosecutors, FBI agents, committees of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.
The notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein toppled Nixon is one of the most popular narratives in American journalism. It is, in fact, a tenacious myth – one of many often-told stories about the news media that are widely believed but which, under scrutiny, prove to be dubious or highly exaggerated.
Media myths have masqueraded as fact for years, even decades. And there are more than a few of them.
Another prominent media myth is the “Cronkite Moment” of late February 1968. That was when CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite declared in an on-air editorial comment that the US military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and that negotiations might offer a way out.
Cronkite’s assessment purportedly came as an epiphany to President Lyndon Johnson, who is said to have snapped off the television in the Oval Office and muttered to an aide or aides:
“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Or something to that effect. Versions vary.
But Johnson did not see Cronkite’s program when it aired that evening.
He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for a political ally, Gov. John Connally. About the time Cronkite was pronouncing the war a “stalemate” – a characterization that was hardly novel in early 1968 – Johnson was poking fun about Connally’s advancing age, saying: “Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for – a simple majority. Throughout the years we have worked long and hard – and I might say late – trying to maintain it, too.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Johnson was adamant in defending his administration’s war policy, repeatedly making clear in effect that he had not been swayed by the anchorman’s talk of “stalemate.”
In mid-March 1968, for example, Johnson told business leaders meeting in Washington, D.C.: “We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise – we are going to win.”
Not long after that, Johnson spoke to the National Farmers Union convention, in Minneapolis, where he called for “a total national effort to win the war.” A day later, Johnson said in a talk at the State Department: “We have set our course” in Vietnam. “And we will prevail.”
So at a time when Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” opinion should have weighed heavily on Johnson, the President remained publicly and vigorously upbeat about the war.
A more recent media myth is that news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast 12 years ago, was superlative.
In September 2005, former CBS News anchor Dan Rather went on CNN’s Larry King Live program to declare the reporting of Hurricane Katrina one of the “quintessential great moments in television news … right there with the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”
Rather was hardly alone in praising the coverage. American Journalism Review declared in a flattering cover story that the news media in their Katrina reporting had demonstrated they were “essential again.”
The magazine also stated: “In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.”
The lavish praise was more than a little deceptive. News coverage describing chaos and lawlessness after the storm was often over-the-top and erroneous.
Media outlets reported snipers taking aim at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans where many people had taken refuge. They told of bodies stacked up at the Superdome. They reported that gangs were running rampant, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit.
As it turned out, few if any of the gruesome accounts were supported by facts.
A bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives noted in a detailed report about the hurricane’s aftermath that “media reports from New Orleans featured rampant looting, gunfire, crime, and lawlessness, including murders and alleged sexual assaults at the Superdome and Convention Center. Few of these reports were substantiated, and those that were – such as the gunfire – were later understood to be actually coming from individuals trapped and trying to attract the attention of rescuers in helicopters.”
Accurate reporting, the report declared, “was among Katrina’s many victims.”
The exaggerated reporting had the further effect of defaming a city and its people at a time of great confusion and despair. The coverage depicted them, quite inaccurately, as having shed restraint amid disaster.
So media myths are not harmless. They can, and do, have damaging consequences.
Media myths also tend to grant the news media greater power and influence than they realistically exert, which distorts popular understanding about the roles and functions of journalism. Media power tends to be nuanced and situational – seldom sweeping or game-changing, as media myths suggest.
To address and debunk media myths is, therefore, to be aligned with an essential objective of American journalism – that of getting it right.