W. Joseph Campbell corrects the record on 10 important misreported stories.

Media criticism.
May 21 2010 12:37 PM

The Master of Debunk

W. Joseph Campbell corrects the record on 10 important misreported stories.

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Campbell minces other news myths with the same directness. At the risk of patting myself on the back, I'm ultra-qualified to praise his work dismantling the bogus claim that Edward R. Murrow brought Sen. Joseph McCarthy down because I spent a couple of weeks in 2005 debunking the tale. I'm also very pleased to see that for his "crack baby" chapter, Campbell dug up a 1991 Washington City Paper article I edited by Kathy Fackelmann that was among the first pieces to contest the media's relentless assertion that "crack babies" were doomed from the womb.

Proof that a debunker's work is never done comes in this May blog post by Campbell. Even though Campbell's 2001 book Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies settled the issue definitively, some continue to believe that William Randolph Hearst, frustrated that hostilities between the United States and Spain had not yet blossomed into war, told his illustrator Frederic Remington in a 1897 telegram to sit tight in Cuba and wait. "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," the Hearst telegram is supposed to have commanded.

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That, too, never happened, as a concise chapter in Getting It Wrong proves. Yet the anecdote maintains its currency as fact. Evan Thomas' new book The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 repeats the legend as if it's fact. Campbell takes Thomas to school for his goof in this blog post, which I encourage you to read.

What sustains media myths? For instance, why do so many people believe that the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon? Not even Bob Woodward thinks that. "To say that the press brought down Nixon, that's horseshit," Woodward told media scholar Mark Feldstein. Campbell surmises that it is the movie version of All the President's Menthat has helped cement in our consciousness the Bob and Carl myth, quoting fellow debunker Jerry Lembcke approvingly: "America today remembers its history through visual imagery."

Some myths endure because the stories are so compelling, like the Hearst tale and the alleged mayhem caused by Orson Welles' broadcast. Others survive because our prejudices nourish them ("crack babies," bra burners) or because pure repetition has drummed them into our heads, smothering the truth in the process.

The best tonic for the brain fever caused by media myths is an open mind and a free inquiry. I especially admire the disciplined way Campbell corrects so many flawed records without taking cheap shots at the perpetrators, channeling Jonathan Rauch's maxim, "It is the error we punish, not the errant." Of course when you do such a good job punishing the error, as Campbell does, you don't need to bother with the errant.

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Let me sneak in a little more Rauch. "By letting people make errors—even mischievous, spiteful errors (as, for instance, Galileo's insistence on Copernicanism was taken to be in 1633)—pluralism creates room to challenge orthodoxy, think imaginatively, experiment boldly. Brilliance and bigotry are empowered in the same stroke," he wrote in Harper's in 1995. Think imaginatively in your e-mails to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Monitor my Twitter feed so you can challenge it. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Campbell in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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