NewsBusters Interview: W. Joseph Campbell, Author of 'Getting It Wrong'

Ask a journalist to name an example of the power of his profession. Odds are he will bring up Woodward and Bernstein's takedown of President Nixon, or Walter Cronkite's role in turning public opinion against the Vietnam War, or maybe Edward R. Murrow's exposes about Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare.

Just one problem: all of these iconic moments in journalistic history are myths.

So writes W. Joseph Campbell, professor of communication at American University, and a long-time reporter for news outlets including the Associated Press and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

In his book "Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism", Campbell takes on 10 of the most prominent "media-driven myths", as he calls them. The myths include the three above, as well as ones surrounding William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-Ameircan War, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, "crack babies," the Bay of Pigs, the War of the Worlds, and burning bras in Atlantic City.

"Getting It Wrong" is exhaustively researched and painstakingly even-handed. Campbell makes sure to stress at the outset that it is not a "media-bashing book." Rather, the volume stays true to journalism's real mission: not myth-making, but fact-finding. Campbell seeks to set the record straight where often journalists themselves have obscured it. He also discusses media-driven myths at his blog, Media Myth Alert.

Professor Campbell sat down with NewsBusters to discuss the book, and the prevalence of media-driven myths more generally. Here's the full audio and transcript of our discussion.

NB: We as a society, and as a culture, seem to have this iconic image, collective image, of a journalist in the good old days of journalism, of course, as sort of a shadowy figure with a little press label in his hat hammering away at his typewriter all night to make deadline. Is that a media driven myth, and do we have a sort of false nostalgia about the bygone days of journalism, when reporters were hardworking and honest and could really make a difference and affect positive change?

CAMPBELL: I mean, we can look back in those days, and I think very we're very susceptible in journalism in general, to what I call in the book the Golden Age fallacy. It's not my construction, others have identified it, but I think its very applicable to journalism to look back and say, "oh yes, there really was a time when journalism mattered, when Cronkite could shift the direction of a war, or Woodward and Bernstein, two young reporters could bring down a president."

That's emblematic of the Golden Age fallacy. And I think it applies to the nostalgia for the newsrooms that were rough and tumble places, and there were all kinds of characters, and it was a lively, entertaining, maybe a bit soggy in terms of the alcohol and stuff. But those were great days. I think that really, also, is susceptible to the Golden Age fallacy.

Because these news rooms were that, but they were also very sexist places, they were also very rough and tumble places, very cliquey, and I'm not so sure that the journalism practiced there by some of the old timers was all that good. It was susceptible to influences that we would find abhorrent today. You know, taking free stuff, trips, travel, tickets, food, I mean it was not really given a second thought back in the day.

NB: So as someone who spent a career in journalism, do journalists get it wrong often, or are these very isolated incidents that you're writing about?

CAMPBELL: The book focuses on prominent media myths, and the 10 in the book are not the closed universe of media-driven myths, by any means. There are others out there that might even make for a sequel one day, possibly. So the book takes a look at prominent stories about and or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold, prominent, even cherished, stories about the media.

So these are not really the run of the mill mistakes, errors, lapses that journalists inevitably commit. That happens. These are, in many respects, iconic notions about journalism. They've done great things.

NB: So how are these media-driven myths created?

CAMPBELL: They come from lots of different sources. Sometimes these are stores that are just too good to be checked out. Like William Randolph Hearst, "you furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." That sums up not only Hearst and his malignant, toxic personality pretty well, but it also suggests the news media can, at the worst end of things, even bring about a war that the country otherwise wouldn't have fought.

NB: Upton Sinclair in 1919. He writes that Hearst's newspaper employees were "willing, by deliberate and shameful lies, made out of whole cloth, to stir nations to enmity, and drive them to murderous war."

CAMPBELL: It's a great line, it's totally exaggerated. Newspapers then and now - news media then and now - do not have that power, typically, to drive a country to war, or even to seek the peace, as the Cronkite one supposedly suggests.

NB: You open the book with the example of the New York Sun, and mere months before it closes shop, it offers Cronkite and Murrow as the paragons of the power of journalism and journalistic integrity and honesty and speaking truth to power. Those are both myths?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, both of 'em. And Murrow, although he's held up as the white knight of broadcast journalism, was very much a compromised character. Even his own biographers have identified what we would see today as disqualifying ethical lapses in his background. He claimed degrees that he did not earn, he coached Adlai Stevenson on the finer techniques of using television during the 1956 presidential campaign. Privately, he did this, but if that was known, and a well-known broadcast journalist was doing that today - well, I don't know, but I suspect there would be considerable controversy about that kind of conduct.

No, Murrow was no white knight. He really wasn't. But he's been held up, and I guess perhaps TV needs to have somebody like that, someone who is regarded as the model of the integrity, of high ethics, and so forth, but he really wasn't.

And his takedown of Joe McCarthy, even he admitted - that's a funny thing about media-driven myths, in many cases the principles themselves, and it's not false-modesty, but they say 'no, it really didn't happen. I wasn't that integral, I wasn't that central to, whatever, taking down McCarthy'.

Or Cronkite, for many years, said 'you know, my report on Vietnam was only a final straw on the back of a crippled camel.' It was only late in Cronkite's life that he began to embrace the notion that his report about Vietnam in February of 1968 had a real effect on Lyndon Johnson and on Johnson's war policy and his political career.

So many of the principles themselves say, 'no, that really overstates things. I wasn't as important as the notion, as the myth, holds me to be.' And that's the case with Murrow. He said very clearly that he was quite late to taking on McCarthy. He said he didn't say or report anything on that program in March 1954 that hadn't been said or reported by others many times in the months or years ahead. It was true. That's accurate. That's very accurate.

Drew Pearson, as scuzzy of a journalist as he may have been, he was on McCarthy's case almost immediately. February 1950, he went after McCarthy in his column and went after him repeatedly, and called attention to the exaggerations of McCarthy's communist-in-government witch-hunt, and I think did a very effective job of identifying McCarthy as a blowhard. But Drew Pearson today is not regarded as the guy who took down McCarthy, regarded as the guy who stopped McCarthyism in its tracks. It's Edward R. Murrow.

NB: Going back to the New York Sun example, these are very self-serving myths sometimes, and today, when traditional journalism, especially print journalism, seems to be on the decline in terms of its influence, are these myths being promoted more than they have traditionally in an attempt by the old guard to convince people of - to make people nostalgic for the time when these honest journalists with integrity spoke truth to power?

CAMPBELL: There is no doubt part of that. That's one of the factors. I think that these stories, though, many of them, the Murrow story, the Cronkite story, Watergate, Hearst, are just too good to resist at many times, and they become ingrained as part of the accepted conventional wisdom.

The Watergate story, the dominant narrative of Watergate really is that Woodward and Bernstein brought down a corrupt president. Now there's no doubt in my mind that Nixon was corrupt and deserved to be removed from office, but the forces that brought him down were not Woodward and Bernstein. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post were really marginal to that. But it's become part of the story, part of the dominant narrative, it's an intriguing story and it lives on that way.

It's also a very simplistic explanation for a complex historical event, and that's another reason these myths take hold and live on. Watergate was not - the outcome of Watergate was not due to the Washington Post so much as it was to the combined, collective, if not always coordinated efforts of subpoena-wielding authorities. The FBI, federal prosecutors, special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, ultimately the Supreme Court, which got Nixon to surrender the tapes the prosecutors had wanted, and those tapes quite clearly showed his active role in covering up the seminal crimes of Watergate.

So it took that kind of collective effort over a sustained period of time by people who could compel testimony and could compel the disclosure of evidence in ways that reporters can't. And then the pivotal element of Watergate in many respects was the disclosure about the taping system and that came not through reporters, that came through the Senate select committee and their hearings in 1973. It was staff that brought that out, and got Alexander Butterfield to testify that yes, there was this taping system. And the whole Watergate scandal pivoted on getting those tapes because they would disclose once and for all whether Nixon was guilty or not. And that was not a disclosure by the Washington Post or any other news organization. It came from Senate investigators.

So the notion to simplify and to distill these stories, these complex historical events, into simplistic, digestible, easily-understood anecdotes is another factor that explains the tenacity of media-driven myths. These are straight-forward, interesting, distilled examples of how history operated. But they're misleading.

NB: So why, personally, do you feel that - you obviously feel it's very important that these myths be exposed as myths. What's the damage that these myths do if they carry on unquestioned?

CAMPBELL: I think one of the drawbacks is that they do suggest power that the news media typically do not have. Media power in my view tends to be episodic, tends to be situational, nuanced, and it's typically trumped by other forces and other factors. Government power, police power trends to overwhelm media power on an average basis in most circumstances.

But these stories - about Cronkite, about Murrow, about Watergate, about Hearst, and some of the others in the book - typically send a message that the media have great power, to do good or to do harm. They can start a war, they can end a war, they can alter the political landscape, they can even bring down a president - they're that powerful. That's absolutely a misleading message. It's not how media power is applied or exerted, and that's an important reason to debunk these myths.

There's also some inherent importance too in trying to set the record straight to the extent you can. And in that regard, the book is aligned with the fundamental objective of journalism as practiced in this country, of getting it right, getting the story correct. I kind of resist the notion that the book is a media-bashing book, it's more aligned with this fundamental objective of news-gathering.

NB: And some of the - the Katrina example comes to mind - some of the myths actually have to do with the media - not just a flawed or misleading understanding of events, but a completely fabricated, and made up and very destructive events sometimes. And I say Katrina because there were all these reports of gunfire in New Orleans, of dead bodies being piled up in the Superdome, none of which was true.

CAMPBELL: That's right.

NB: And recently you concurred with a writer whose name escapes me at the moment in giving the press a D-minus for their coverage.

CAMPBELL: Was it Harry Schearer?

NB: Right, correct.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I think that's a harsh grade - I mean if you give a student a D-minus and he or she didn't think she deserved it, she would certainly be calling you on it. But I think a D-minus, though a harsh grade, is certainly applicable, for some of the examples you've just given.

Not only that, but the collective sense that those kinds of media reports gave about New Orleans - the place had just collapsed, the city and its people had collapsed into this sort of apocalyptic, Mad Max-like, nightmarish scene - and it served to besmirch the city and its citizens at the time of their direst need. And that, I think, is just absolutely reprehensible. And that's the message that we were getting.

I remember sitting transfixed and watching some of this coverage and saying, my God, I can't believe this is going on. And I was more inclined at first to believe that this was true, rather than not. I think that's perhaps the default option that most television viewers and media audiences have. What you're being shown, or what you're reading in the press is going to be accurate.

But there were people - and David Carr of the New York Times is one of them - who said, 'some of this sounded just too extreme to be true,' and went down and took a look and found that a lot of it had been exaggerated.

To the credit of the news media, they did go back - many of them, many of these news organizations - and took a look at how they got it wrong. But that tended to be a one-off kind of thing, and placed in the newspapers inside the papers. Broadcast media didn't do much of this at all. So this one-off kind of revisiting mistakes made tended to be a fleeting episode, a fleeting moment, and I don't think lessons properly were drawn from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, and the disastrous coverage of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

So even to this day, five years on, I still don't believe the news media have taken full measure of the mistakes they made in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The tendency is still to blame government - local, state, and certainly federal government - for an inept response. But the story was deeper than that and it was more complex than that, and that's the part that the news media got wrong. How they got that wrong I don't think they've done an adequate job at all in self-examination, self-reflection. Why did we screw this up so badly?

NB: And of course one of the consequences of that misreporting was that, as you mention, the federal government especially bore a lot of the blame for what was happening there. And then you also have Murrow taking down perhaps the most notorious cold warrior in our cxountry's history, you have Cronkite as the standard bearer for the left's main cause during the 1960s, you have Woodward and Bernstein taking down a Republican president. Are there political factors at work here, do you think?

CAMPBELL: In terms of debunking the myths?

NB: No, in terms of the myths being created.

CAMPBELL: I think that some of the more enduring myths are those that have appeal across the political spectrum. The Cronkite moment is one of them - it appeals because this is, for folks on the right, this is a real clear-cut example of how the news media screwed us in Vietnam, and how they prevented us from winning the war there. And on the left it's an example of telling truth to power, and how Walter Cronkite was able to pierce through the nonsense, and make it clear to the Johnson administration that the policy in Vietnam was bankrupt. Something for everyone.

The crack-baby syndrome too was another one - it has appeal across the political spectrum. I'm not the first to have identified that. i think Mother Jones magazine called attention to that back in '95. It's a very telling observation, it's absolutely correct. It appeals, or has resonance with commentators and others both on the political right and the political left.

So in many respects those more enduring myths have broad appeal.

NB: Probably not coincidentally. I meant that has to do with why they're enduring myths, they sort of serve the ends, politically at least, of both sides.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, exactly. I guess if you can turn that trick, you have have a myth that's going to live on for a long time. But that's not the only reason that these myths have appeal, but in some cases, some of the real tenacious ones do have appeal left and right.

Some are apolitical. I mean the War of the Worlds myth - the country was convulsed in panic. That one was driven by multiple factors, important among those factors was the fact that newspapers had a golden opportunity to just bash radio for its irresponsibility. And radio, in the 1930s, was the new media, so this was an opportunity to take on a rival, to pound away at this upstart, irresponsible rival, that didn't recognize the importance of separating fact from fiction.

Newspapers went wild for a few days, editorially, just pounding away at Orson Wells, the war of the worlds dramatization, and radio in general for not having learned the lessons that newspapers had. So that's one reason that that one was cemented into our national consciousness. Old media bashing new media.

NB: And do you see that at play today? Once again, there's a new medium that threatens not just newspapers, but virtually every major, traditional news medium. Do you see an attempt again to -

CAMPBELL: It came up in some of the Hurricane Katrina coverage, some of the aftermath coverage. I know American Journalism Review did a very glowing piece - what did they call it, Essential Again, it was a cover story on the coverage and how effective it was, and how newspapers had been being beaten down for so long by not only the recession but the shifting media landscape - suddenly we're essential again, telling truth to power. Same with broadcast. same with television. It was a glowing assessment of how effective the news media performed in its coverage of Katrina.

But it was totally off base and way exaggerated. And the storyline may have been ok for a day or two, but the overall arch of the story they got completely wrong. And in the next issue of American Journalism Review was devoted - I think it was a cover piece too - was devoted to myth-making in New Orleans. They went back and told I think a more textured, nuanced, detailed story about just how off-target the coverage was.

But that Essential Again story, which I do mention in the book, was an attempt i think to salute the relevance of old media, of traditional media after having been battered for many years by multiple forces in multiple ways.

NB: Looking forward, do new media present an opportunity to debunk these myths before they get started?

CAMPBELL: You would think that it would, and I think there has been some evidence that that's the case, but then there are other myths that just seem to defy debunking - newer myths. Jack Scaheffer at has done some interesting work in looking at the so-called notion of "pharm parties" in which young people would raid their medicine cabinets of their parents and just take whatever medication they could find, bring them to a party, and then dump them in a communal bowl, and sort of play Russian roulette with these drugs - by the handful take them, and see what kind of effect that hey have.

And it seems to be an urban legend that's just taken hold, and it's appeared in newspapers periodically around the country - San Francisco to DC - and there seems to be no evidence to support this other than the notion that police have heard that this kind of stuff goes on. And Schaeffer's written a number of columns at Slate that insist that no one has ever seen this happen, no one has ever attended a pharm party, there's never been any kind of first person documentation. And yet, the story is too good not to be true, and it lives on. So you would think that the Internet would have been more effective by now in knocking down that kind of story. It hasn't.

NB: So these myths, then, get started because newspapers have disregarded their own - or not just newspapers, but any media has disregarded its own standards of journalism.

CAMPBELL: You could see that in some cases, yeah I suppose that's true. I don't think they're going at this whole hog and saying, we're just going to forget about our standards and go at this story just because it sounds so good.

NB: Or, put differently, if those standards were followed to a T, some of these myths might never have taken shape.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that's probably true.

NB: Last question. A lot of these myths are ingrained in our culture. They're part of American history, included in textbooks. The Woodward and Bernstein example comes to mind. You have movies, for instance, All the President's Men, or Good Night and Good Luck with Edward R. Murrow - does pop culture, or culture in general, play a larger part in perpetuating these myths? Is this something that journalists create on their own, or is it out of their hands and American culture sees these magnificent stories, and sort of adopts them as their own?

CAMPBELL: I think the dynamic that leads to the solidification of media myths is a very interesting one. It's kind of complex, but I think that some of the points that you've mentioned are very central to that process of solidifying a myth - sort of the national consciousness. Cinema does a very good job of doing that. Cinematic treatments help solidify in the minds of people the supposed reality of some of these exchanges, of some of these encounters, of some of these moments.

The Cronkite moment hasn't been treated cinematically, but his editorial comment at the end of that program in February '68 lives on. You can find it on YouTube, it pops up so often. Television bears responsibility too, but the cinematic treatments of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men I think really helped solidify the notion that those two guys were central to bringing down Richard Nixon. In fact, the movie, as clever and well-done as it is, leads to no other interpretation but that. It had to be those guys.

NB: The final five minutes are headlines coming on screen -

CAMPBELL: Yes, exactly. And the scene prior to that is Woodward and Bernstein hammering away on their electric typewriters, and then it dissolves into this hyperactive teletype machine, clearly suggesting Woodward and Bernstein's work. This is their product, this is what they've done, this is how they're wrapping up the investigation. There's no other interpretation that you can bring from that.

As a nation we do tend to remember things cinematically. I'm not the first one to say that. Others have looked at it more closely than I have and have made that determination. It's a fair statement. Good Night and Good Luck introduced a whole new generation of Americans to the notion that Edward R. Murrow was the one who did in Joe McCarthy with his 30-minute television program.

NB: Do you have students who come in and say 'I saw Good Night and Good Luck and it inspired me to pursue a career in journalism'?

CAMPBELL: You know I haven't heard it said quite that way, but they do think that that movie is well done.

NB: The romanticism of journalism appeals to the students.

CAMPBELL: Exactly. And All the President's Men - more students have seen All the President's Men then have read the book, by far. And in DC it's a great movie too - it's set here. But cinema really is a factor that propels and solidifies these myths.

William Randolph Hearst's famous quote - there's a passage in Citizen Kane in which Charles Foster Kane paraphrases "you furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." And it's a great line. You can actually see that and you think, yeah that must have been what Hearst was doing too. Just sort of [inaudible] telling his guys to send it off immediately. It's a great line, and it works.

So these passages in cinema do help to solidify the notion that these myths are true stories. So it makes the debunking especially difficult. And I am under no illusion that these stories and going to be thoroughly and completely debunked, that people would just stop reciting them, they'll stop appearing in textbooks - that's just not going to happen. They're too good not to be true. Too good not to use.

So the blog I started almost a year ago is intent on calling attention in a modest way - it doesn't get a lot of traffic - but in a modest way to call attention to the appearance of these myths, while also helping to promote the book as well. But it's going to take more than that to [inaudible] these myths once and for all.

NB: We'll be eagerly anticipating the sequel.

CAMPBELL: I think there is potential for another book. The 10 in this book, in Getting it Wrong, do take on some of the juiciest - Hearst, Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, the Cronkite moment, crack babies - so there are 10 others, I'm sure, but they're not necessarily collectively as good. I don't know, maybe they will be.  

NewsBusters Interview W. Joseph Campbell