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Getting It Wrong: Why Many of American Journalism's Most Cherished Stories Are Exaggerated or Apocryphal

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So which anecdote about their profession are American journalists most likely to embrace, recall, retell?

Is it the one about Watergate, and how two young, intrepid, and tireless reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon's corrupt presidency?

Or is it about the "Cronkite Moment" of 1968, when Walter Cronkite's dire, on-air assessment about Vietnam forced Lyndon Johnson to alter course on the war?

Or is it the tale about newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and his vow--supposedly cabled to the artist Frederic Remington in Cuba in 1897--to "furnish the war" with Spain?

They're all contenders. They're all well-known, often taught in schools, colleges, and universities. They're all delicious tales about the power of the news media to bring about change, for good or ill.

They're all media-driven myths, too.

By that I mean they are prominent, even cherished stories about the news media that are often retold and widely believed; but under scrutiny, they dissolve as apocryphal, dubious, or wildly exaggerated.

The anecdotes about Watergate, Cronkite, and Hearst are three media-driven myths that I address, and debunk, in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism.

So what makes these stories myths?

The Washington Post was peripheral to the outcome of Watergate--as even Post officials will acknowledge. Among them was Katharine Graham, the publisher during the Watergate period. At a program in 1997 marking the 25th anniversary of the break-in that set in motion the Watergate scandal, Graham declared, "Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn't do. The processes that caused [Nixon's] resignation were constitutional."

Indeed, the forces that brought Nixon down were many and typically subpoena-wielding. They included federal investigators, congressional panels, and special prosecutors, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court. Even then, Nixon may have served out his second term if not for the secret tape-recordings that captured his criminal conduct.

Lyndon Johnson, as I write in Getting It Wrong, did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on CBS on February 27, 1968. Johnson at the time was in Austin, Texas, making light-hearted comments at a birthday party for Gov. John Connally, who turned 51.

Even if the president later saw the Cronkite show, on videotape (and there's no evidence he did), it represented no epiphany. Just a few days after the "Cronkite Moment," Johnson delivered a rousing speech, asserting that the United States would "not cut and run" from Vietnam. Later in March 1968, Johnson gave lectern-pounding speech, in which he urged "a total national effort to win the war" in Vietnam.

The anecdote about Hearst's vow to "furnish the war" has been around for more than 100 years and has been repeated by no small number of journalists, scholars, and critics, including Ben Bagdikian, Helen Thomas, and the late David Halberstam. The vow turned up most recently in Evan Thomas' new book, The War Lovers.

And yet, no evidence has ever emerged to document the anecdote. Hearst denied ever having made such a remark. And Remington, the artist Hearst sent to Cuba on assignment, apparently never discussed the anecdote.

It lives on despite an irreconcilable internal inconsistency: It would have been absurd for Hearst to have vowed to "furnish the war" because war--specifically, Cuba's island-wide rebellion Spanish colonial rule--was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place. Remington went there to sketch images of the Cuban rebellion that had been started in 1895. By 1898, it spilled over into what we know as the Spanish-American War.

Moreover, Spanish authorities controlled telegraph lines into and out of Cuba. They surely would have intercepted Hearst's "furnish the war" cable--and have called attention to it as an example of Yankee meddling.

What, then, explains the allure and tenacity of these and other media-driven myths?

Several reasons offer themselves.

They are, first of all, deliciously good stories--too good, almost, to be disbelieved.

They also are appealingly reductive, in that they minimize complexity of historical events and offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead. The Washington Post no more brought down Nixon than Walter Cronkite swayed Johnson's views about the war in Vietnam. Yet those and other media myths endure because they present unambiguous, easy-to-remember explanations for complex historic events.

Some media-driven myths can be self-flattering, offering up heroes in a profession more accustomed to scorn and criticism than applause.

More important, though, is that media-driven myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and significance in what journalists do. These myths affirm the centrality of the news media in public life and ratify the notion the media are powerful, even decisive actors.

To identify these tales as media-driven myths is to confront the reality that the news media are not the powerful agents they, and so many others, assume them to be.

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