Professor W. Joseph Campbell takes on, and debunks, some of American journalism’s best-known stories in his upcoming book, Getting It Wrong, to be published this summer by University of California Press.
It will be the fifth book in 12 years for Campbell, who joined the AU faculty in 1997. His other works include The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and The Clash of Paradigms (2006) and Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001).
We sat down with Campbell to ask him about his new book, which debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths—stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Getting It Wrong already has attracted the notice of the Washington Post.
Q: What led you to focus Getting It Wrong on exposing media-driven myths?
A: The book is an extension of my earlier research, especially my research into the yellow press period in late 19th century American journalism. That period is very poorly understood, largely because of the myths that surround the likes of William Randolph Hearst, the leading exemplar of yellow journalism as it was practiced in the late 19th century. The first chapter in my new book revisits and debunks the well-known tale of Hearst's vowing to "furnish the war" with Spain. His purported vow is one of the most famous and long-lived anecdotes in American journalism.
Q: What type of research did you conduct in order to debunk these myths?
A: I pursued a number of approaches and methodologies. It's archival in part: I relied heavily on the exceptional, only-in-Washington resources of the Library of Congress for several chapters of Getting It Wrong, including the debunking of the notion that Orson Welles' radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds in 1938 set off mass hysteria and a nationwide panic. Scrutinizing the coverage of the time made it pretty clear that while some people were frightened by the War of the Worlds broadcast, most people—overwhelmingly—were not. I also conducted several interviews to bolster the research.
Q: Which revelation in the book do you think will most surprise readers?
A: That's an interesting question. I think many people are quite surprised to learn the so-called "Cronkite Moment" of February 1968 is probably apocryphal. That was when Cronkite said in an on-the-air editorial that the U.S. war effort in Vietnam was “mired in stalemate.” At the White House, President Johnson supposedly watched the Cronkite report and, upon hearing the anchorman's downbeat assessment, snapped off the TV, saying, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Or words to that effect. My research makes it clear that Johnson could not have seen the program when it aired. The president at the time was making light-hearted remarks in Austin, Texas, at the 51st birthday party of Gov. John Connally. And there's no clear evidence that Johnson later viewed the program on videotape. What's more, the president's hawkish rhetoric on Vietnam did not soften in the immediate aftermath of the Cronkite program. If anything, he was even more adamant, at least for a while, on pursuing the war effort.
Q: "Myth busting" can upset people who have accepted, or even benefited from, the myth. Have you gotten any negative feedback?
A: Not really. Not so far. I do know that some people wonder "who cares?" about some of the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong. The Hearst—"furnish the war" myth, after all, is more than 100 years old. But I emphasize in the book that media-driven myths are neither innocuous nor trivial. They can, and do, promote stereotypes. They can deflect attention or blame away from the makers of flawed policies. They can, and often do, offer an exaggerated sense of the power and influence of the news media. Plus, debunking myths is a pursuit that's aligned with a fundamental objective of mainstream American journalism—that of getting it right.
Q: Do you see any "Media Driven Myths" in the making today?
A: I do. The media critic for slate.com, Jack Shafer, has done terrific work debunking the notion of "pharm parties." These are purported events at which young people take pills of all kinds from their parents' medicine cabinets. They show up at a party and dump the pills into a large, common bowl. They then take turns scooping out and swallowing handfuls of the medications, not knowing what they're taking, in the supposed pursuit of a drug-induced high. As Shafer notes, no one has ever documented such an event. Yet reports of "pharm parties" turn up fairly often in contemporary news reports. The notion that suicides peak around the year-end holidays is another media-driven myth that persists despite persistent efforts of the Annenberg Center on Public Policy to debunk it. Those efforts have contained the myth, but have not thoroughly uprooted it. Surveys and statistical data are often misinterpreted and that can give rise to media-driven myths.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’d like to think there’s a sequel to Getting It Wrong. The universe of media-driven myths isn’t confined to 10, after all. There are more to confront. Also, in fall 2010, I’ll be teaching a “wild card” course in the University’s General Education program titled “Media Myth and Power.” The course will consider several of the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong.