Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A good story is a terrible thing to waste

Perhaps the most famous line from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" was the reporter's "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." This review of Getting It Wrong suggests that fictional reporter's journalistic ethic is pretty close to reality. A good story is a terrible thing to waste.
William Randolph Hearst never said, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast didn't panic America. Ed Murrow's "See It Now" TV show didn't destroy Sen. Joseph McCarthy. JFK didn't talk the New York Times into spiking its scoop on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Far from being the first hero of the Iraq War, captured Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was caught sobbing "Oh, God help us" and never fired a shot.

These fables and more are lovingly undressed in W. Joseph Campbell's persuasive and entertaining Getting It Wrong. With old-school academic detachment, Mr. Campbell, a communications professor at American University, shows how the fog of war, the warp of ideology and muffled skepticism can transmute base journalism into golden legend.

Mr. Campbell's examples run from the Spanish-American War to Hurricane Katrina, with oddities like the feminist bra-burning at the Democratic Convention in 1964 sandwiched in between. In each case, the author teases out the grain of sand around which the pearl of the myth was spun. ....

For all Mr. Campbell's earnest scholarship, these media myths are certain to survive his efforts to slay them. Journalism can't help itself—it loves and perpetuates its sacred legends of evil power-mongers, courageous underdogs, dread plagues and human folly. At the end of the book, Mr. Campbell offers some remedies for media mythologizing, urging journalists, among other things, "to deepen their appreciation of complexity and ambiguity." Good luck with that, professor. [more]
Book review: Getting It Wrong - WSJ.com
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