Despite what you might read in my cranky press columns, most reporters—make that practically all reporters—strive to get the story right. And when they get it wrong, most (but, alas, not all) reporters do their best to correct the record they’ve botched.
In recent years we’ve seen reporters put right the errors made by their peers in covering the killing of Pat Tillman, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, the Duke lacrosse “rape,” and other significant stories. But by dint of their provenance, like the say-so of some super-reporter, or by the elegance with which they exploit our prejudices, some misreported stories resist revision. Then, the only way to debunk an enshrined falsehood is with maximum reportorial firepower.
Toting big guns and an itchy trigger-finger is American University professor W. Joseph Campbell, whose new book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalismflattens established myths that you were brought up to believe were true: that Orson Welles sparked a national panic with his 1938 War of the Worldsbroadcast; that the New York Times suppressed news of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba at the request of the White House; that Edward R. Murrow destroyed Sen. Joseph McCarthy; that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst told an illustrator, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” before the Spanish-American war started; and more.
It has long been an article of faith that President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” or something like that, after watching the February 1968 CBS News special about the Vietnam War in which well-respected broadcaster and host Walter Cronkite described the conflict as “mired in stalemate.” Indeed, a month after the special, Johnson told the nation he would not be running for re-election.
“The program supposedly was so singularly potent that it has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite moment,’ ” Campbell writes.
But when and where did Johnson make his Cronkite statement? The earliest mention of the Johnson anecdote Campbell could find is in David Halberstam’s 1979 book about the press, The Powers That Be, which was published more than a decade after the alleged utterance. Halberstam doesn’t put the apocryphal Johnson statement in quotations, writing on Page 514:
In Washington, Lyndon Johnson watched and told his press secretary, George Christian, that it was a turning point, that if he had lost Walter Cronkite he had lost Mr. Average Citizen. It solidified his decision not to run again.
There are a half-dozen problems with Halberstam’s reporting. Johnson doesn’t appear to have seen the program when it aired, as Campbell documents. The program was recorded, according to Johnson Presidential Library records, but there is no evidence he watched the tape. Nor does Johnson mention the program in his memoirs, The Vantage Point. Arguing against the view that the program made a big impact on Johnson are the strident pro-war speeches Johnson gave after it aired. In one hell-raiser, he demanded a “total national effort” to win in Vietnam.
Plus, there is no consensus on what Johnson was supposed to have said the night of the broadcast. The Johnson comment has also been reported as “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,” “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the American people,” and “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.” As Campbell smartly writes, “Version variability of that magnitude signals implausibility. It is a marker of a media-driven myth.”
Campbell delivers a similar blow to the widely repeated assertion the White House forced the New York Times to spike its coverage of the build-up of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. So entrenched is this myth that four years ago, Campbell notes, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz wrote, “President Kennedy pressed the Times successfully to withhold most details of the impending Bay of Pigs invasion.”
Never happened. “In fact,” Campbell writes, “the Times’s reports about preparations for the invasion were fairly detailed and prominently displayed on the front page in the days before the assault.” There is no evidence that Kennedy asked the Times to temper its coverage and no evidence that he knew in advance about the newspaper’s report. Campbell surmises that the Bay of Pigs legend was fortified by an incident during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in which the Times did hold a story at Kennedy’s direct request.
Campbell minces other news myths with the same directness. At the risk of patting myself on the back, I’m ultra-qualified to praise his work dismantling the bogus claim that Edward R. Murrow brought Sen. Joseph McCarthy down because I spent a couple of weeks in 2005 debunking the tale. I’m also very pleased to see that for his “crack baby” chapter, Campbell dug up a 1991 Washington City Paper article I edited by Kathy Fackelmann that was among the first pieces to contest the media’s relentless assertion that “crack babies” were doomed from the womb.
Proof that a debunker’s work is never done comes in this May blog post by Campbell. Even though Campbell’s 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies settled the issue definitively, some continue to believe that William Randolph Hearst, frustrated that hostilities between the United States and Spain had not yet blossomed into war, told his illustrator Frederic Remington in a 1897 telegram to sit tight in Cuba and wait. “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” the Hearst telegram is supposed to have commanded.
That, too, never happened, as a concise chapter in Getting It Wrong proves. Yet the anecdote maintains its currency as fact. Evan Thomas’ new book The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 repeats the legend as if it’s fact. Campbell takes Thomas to school for his goof in this blog post, which I encourage you to read.
What sustains media myths? For instance, why do so many people believe that the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon? Not even Bob Woodward thinks that. “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” Woodward told media scholar Mark Feldstein. Campbell surmises that it is the movie version of All the President’s Menthat has helped cement in our consciousness the Bob and Carl myth, quoting fellow debunker Jerry Lembcke approvingly: “America today remembers its history through visual imagery.”
Some myths endure because the stories are so compelling, like the Hearst tale and the alleged mayhem caused by Orson Welles’ broadcast. Others survive because our prejudices nourish them (“crack babies,” bra burners) or because pure repetition has drummed them into our heads, smothering the truth in the process.
The best tonic for the brain fever caused by media myths is an open mind and a free inquiry. I especially admire the disciplined way Campbell corrects so many flawed records without taking cheap shots at the perpetrators, channeling Jonathan Rauch’s maxim, “It is the error we punish, not the errant.” Of course when you do such a good job punishing the error, as Campbell does, you don’t need to bother with the errant.
Let me sneak in a little more Rauch. “By letting people make errors—even mischievous, spiteful errors (as, for instance, Galileo’s insistence on Copernicanism was taken to be in 1633)—pluralism creates room to challenge orthodoxy, think imaginatively, experiment boldly. Brilliance and bigotry are empowered in the same stroke,” he wrote in Harper’s in 1995. Think imaginatively in your e-mails to email@example.com. Monitor my Twitter feed so you can challenge it. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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