Sunday, March 25, 2012

Getting It Wrong

This book marks something of a milestone for me because it's the first book I've discussed on this blog whose author I've met. I met W. Joseph Campbell about a year ago at the Phi Gamma Delta's annual Pig Dinner reunion at Ohio Wesleyan University. Mr. Campbell was a fraternity brother of my father (I myself never joined a fraternity), and technically, I met him a local bar because my dad and few others never bother going to the actual ceremony. I might be getting too detailed and off-topic given this little anecdote, but when you're writing about a book called Getting It Wrong, you want to be sure you're getting all the facts right.

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010) is Campbell's examination of ten commonly accepted myths in the history of American journalism. In each chapter, he explores an individual myth, how it likely developed and became accepted as fact, and what the true story really was. The myths include William Randolph Hearst telling photographer Frederic Remington to "furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war," the radio panic induced by Orson Welles' broadcast of War of the Worlds, the New York Times withholding information prior to the Bay of Pigs Invasion at the behest of JFK, the feminist bra burning on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968, Woodward and Bernstein bringing down Nixon, Edward R. Morrow bringing down McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson saying if he lost Cronkite he lost middle America, crack babies as a "bio-underclass," Jessica Lynch as a female Rambo in the Iraq War, and the media's coverage of Hurricane Katrina as exemplary.

In his introduction, Campbell said the purpose of his book is not to scold the media for past failings but to align with a central tenet of journalism: news gathering. Media myths, he argues, can have adverse consequences, whether it be believing the media has more power or influence than it really does or marginalizing factual complexities, but it all comes down to the fact they are wrong. Journalists, reporters, historians and other media types must hold their industry accountable by setting the record straight and getting the facts right. If the media are not willing to hold themselves accountable, what credibility can the media have in holding other entities, such as the government, accountable in the eyes of the public?

How do myths take hold in the first place? Apocryphal or misleading information gets taken as factual and is shared before being vetted, such as how that famous quote became attributed to Hearst; the first known account of it was found in the memoirs of James Creelman, a widely traveled correspondent of the time known for exaggeration who offers no indication or citation of where he learned the supposed quote. Others times, the myths are held up as examples of heroic journalism, casting the profession in a positive light and extolling its impact on public discourse, such Murrow's takedown of McCarthy, even though the Senator's approval ratings were already slipping and other journalists such as Drew Pearson had been taking on McCarthy for years. In a nutshell, media myths make for good, easily-digestible narratives in which all the players fit in easily definable roles, and those stories are the easiest to share.

Getting It Wrong is a quick but intriguing read about some of journalism's most cherished stories, and Campbell backs it up with an impressive amount of research. In the end, it's really about what journalism is about: getting the facts and informing the public.

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