The scene at the San José Mine in Chile last week brought tears to many a newscaster's eyes, as hundreds of jubilant reporters relayed the triumphant rescue of 33 valiant men who survived 10 weeks trapped in a collapsed mine. • It was enough to make communications professor and author W. Joseph Campbell suspect another media myth in the making. • Campbell, who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., has already excavated 10 other events he calls "the greatest misreported stories in American journalism" in his new book Getting it Wrong. • His detailed work picks apart some of journalism's key moments, from the notion that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon's White House (action by the FBI, U.S. Congress and Supreme Court actually did that), to the myth of babies born to crack-addicted moms swamping the country and the idea that CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite turned public opinion on the Vietnam War with a single critical broadcast (public opinion had been souring on the war for months). With an example as recent as the exaggerated reports of rampant rapes and killing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Campbell sees potential for new examples, even in our 24/7 media culture. • Here are some clues to spot myths in the making:
Myths are too good to be true
Campbell started this book while working on another one about America's Yellow Journalism period, when legendary newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst was credited with starting the Spanish-American War, telling a famous painter he sent to Cuba, "You supply the pictures, I'll supply the war."
But Campbell found no proof Hearst sent such a telegram, Hearst himself denied it, and fighting was likely already under way when painter Frederic Remington arrived.
"On their face, (myths) are deliciously good stories," Campbell said. "Hearst's quote is neat and tidy. But do people talk like that, really?"
Myths empower the news media
Journalists eager to illustrate the transformative power of the press often cite Woodward and Bernstein as inspiring an uptick in enrollment in journalism schools and Cronkite as ending the Vietnam War, even when the story may not be entirely true.
"The stories place news media at the center of decisive moments in history," said Campbell. "But history rarely works that way."
Myths simplify complex subjects
Watergate was a sprawling scandal that took years to unfold, involving multiple investigations which sent 19 men to jail. Summing it up in the work of two reporters and mysterious unnamed source "Deep Throat" helped distill a complex, important event into an easily understood narrative.
It also perpetuated the idea of journalists as heroes, which other journalists really appreciate.
"These myths live on, despite attempts by some principals to debunk them," Campbell said, noting how Woodward himself has resisted the idea that his work alone ended Nixon's presidency. "Which is why you have to be vigilant and a bit skeptical."
Bret Michaels: Life As I Know It, debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on VH1: I admit it, I've never understood why Poison front man Bret Michaels is so beloved these days. Gifted with a so-so voice, membership in a classic hair metal band, reality TV fame and an uncanny survivor's spirit, Michaels allowed VH1's cameras to hang with him as he returns to performing following a mountain of health emergencies, including: an appendectomy, an unexpected brain hemorrhage and a hole in his heart. If only the first episode, featuring him mostly with his kids and girlfriend, were nearly as exciting as the previous sentence. Ti-NO.
For an interview with Vincent Kartheiser, a.k.a. Pete Campbell on Mad Men, go to tampabay.com/blogs/media.
Myths make good stories