By W. Joseph Campbell
By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
If you think Woodward and Bernstein toppled a president, Edward R. Murrow took down Joe McCarthy, Walter Cronkite turned Middle America against the Vietnam War and Orson Welles panicked the populace about Martians, then this book aims to surprise you.
Scrutinizing 10 huge stories, journalism historian W. Joseph Campbell torches the coverage of every single one, over ostensible faults from inaccuracy to exaggeration to self-infatuation.
They end up, he writes, as "media-driven myths – dubious, fanciful, and apocryphal stories...false or improbable claims masquerading as factual...the junk food of journalism."
His claims are bold, well-researched and, at least in my judgment, not universally convincing. But they make a fascinating book and some timely lessons.
Campbell contends – and it will shock few readers of this magazine – that the news media get things wrong for all sorts of reasons. Some, such as the confusion inherent in war coverage, are beyond their control. But he also indicts journalists for sloppy reporting, an overzealous appetite for scapegoats and heroes, a soft spot for exotic but uncorroborated trends and sagas, and a self-importance that blinds them to all these short-
A running theme is that "the news media are not the powerful agents they, and many others, assume them to be... Media power tends to be modest." But this claim is ironic, because a main point of the book is that all these myths have been cemented in our heads by those very media whose powers he belittles.
Campbell scores strongest in several of his 10 cases. Most powerfully, he seems to demolish the enduring notion that President John F. Kennedy pressured the New York Times to spike a 1961 story on the planned Bay of Pigs invasion. By his evidence, Kennedy exerted no pressure and the story ran as planned. The myth may have grown out of an unrelated later episode when Kennedy did persuade the Times to hold a story.
Likewise, it seems unlikely that William Randolph Hearst ever told Frederic Remington, in the run-up to the Spanish-American War, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."
And the media erred big-time in making a "hero-warrior" out of Private Jessica Lynch, who was incorrectly reported to have fired her weapon till she ran out of ammunition and to have shot several enemy soldiers in a 2003 Iraq ambush. In fact, she never fired the jammed weapon, and, as she told another writer, "I didn't kill nobody."
At the other end, the book whiffs on one case: the 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast by Welles. Campbell argues that the program didn't produce as much panic as people think. But he offers page after page of striking evidence that plenty of panic occurred: 15 people treated for shock at a single New Jersey hospital, 20 families with their possessions descending on one police station, 875 phone calls to the New York Times, multiple church services disrupted by people claiming towns had been "wiped out" or "the end of the world has come." It's no myth that this radio show upset people from coast to coast.
Other of Campbell's examples are more nuanced, and consequently more interesting. How much bra burning actually occurred during 1960s protests at the Miss America pageant and elsewhere? Far less than the claims of those denigrating feminism, Campbell says, but some bras and other undergarments were indeed burned, contrary to denials by some feminists.
Campbell's conclusions on Murrow, Cronkite and Watergate seem overstated. He certainly shows that Murrow wasn't the first important critic of McCarthy; that Cronkite criticized the Vietnam War after public opinion had already started to turn; and that many others besides Woodward and Bernstein helped expose Richard Nixon.
But in all three cases, I think he underestimates the power of the symbolic moment, especially the memorable visual image. We understand these journalists didn't act alone. But their authoritative presence and concentrated messages drove home the truth that some threshold of profound change had arrived. These reporters may not have caused historic change, but they made us believe in it.
Overall, Campbell's provocative book provides a wealth of case studies in the complexity of journalism and history. It reinforces the truism that journalists, authors and book reviewers alike should all be more skeptical – and definitely more humble.