Journalism Historian: CNN's Malpractice Is 'a Gift From Heaven for' Trump
W. Joseph Cambpell says, "It makes you wonder why these news organizations are not doing a more thorough job of...fact-checking...and being a bit wary of anonymous sources."
"The cases of misreported or erroneously reported major news stories begin to make you wonder, 'Are the news media just out there to get Trump,'" says W. Joseph Campbell, communications professor at American University and the author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism. "The relationship with the president is very tense and is very strained and very stretched, and probably more stretched than strained than it has been in the recent past."
Campbell also runs Media Myth Alert, a blog that tracks the recycling of fake news stories in the mainstream media. In a wide-ranging conversation with Nick Gillespie about the state of legacy media, the relationship between the press and the president, and the need for media literacy, Cambpell talks about journalists' penchant for overstating their significance and how they often leads them to run with bad information.
"Media power tends to be overstated, it tends to be episodic," says Campbell, who has debunked the role of Walter Cronkite in "ending" the Vietnam War and the Washington Post in bringing down Watergate. "But most of the times, the media are not as powerful as we like to give them credit for or we tend to give them credit for."
Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below:
Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.)
This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: I'm Nick Gillespie, and this is the Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us on iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. With Donald Trump in the White House and on the war path against the media, Americans are being asked like never before to distinguish between what some people call real news and what others call fake news.
I'm talking today with W. Joseph Campbell, a communications professor at American University and the author of the invaluable study "Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism." He also runs the fantastic blog, Media Myth Alert, which regularly corrects persistent mistakes in news accounts about the past and present. Joe Campbell. Thanks for talking with me today.
Joseph Campbell: Thank you, Nick. It's great to be on your podcast.
Gillespie: Let's talk about the concept of fake news, which is the term of art of the past years. CNN recently retracted a story about a Trump administration official, Anthony Scaramucci, for having ties with Russia to Russia during the election season. It was based on one anonymous source and has prompted what might end up being a $100 million lawsuit against the cable news channel. What's your response to this sort of thing. Is this common or are we entering kind of strange ground here?
Campbell: It could be both. It was a jaw-dropping story and it was a jaw-dropping reaction and retraction by CNN, and three journalists lost their job over this story, which as you say apparently had one anonymous as a principal background for the story. It was a real jaw-dropper in many respects. Goodness, it's the latest example of journalists going off the tracks, going off the rails here. It's astonishing as well as distressing because …
Gillespie: What's distressing about it? That CNN ran it or that it was wrong or that they didn't stand by it? Is the idea of using anonymous source, is that just weak for a legitimate news organization to be relying on?
Campbell: Yeah, I think so. I think one anonymous source for a major story like this is far too few. What was really astonishing is that the story was quickly retracted and the three journalists who have had a fair amount of success and prestige in their past were let go, were forced to quit, apparently. It was astonishing in that regard. Plus, the story was so poorly vetted internally before it was released, is another reason why it was, as I keep saying, jaw-dropping. It's not the first time a major news organization has screwed up, but this is a recent example and it really does have the effect of feeding Donald Trump's campaign about fake news. It's a gift from heaven for him.
Gillespie: There are other types of fake news that were being pushed by alternative media and I realized it's kind of hard anymore to talk about mainstream media versus alternative media, because it seems like just as the mainstream in music or in fashion, or hairstyles died maybe 20 or 30 years ago, and it's actually something you touched on in your great previous book about "1995: The Year the Future Began," everything is alternative. But there's fake news coming from right-wing or even left-wing conspiracy mongers.
Recently, there was the pizzagate story which came out of hacked D.C. emails claimed at a D.C. area pizza place. Comet Pizza was actually at the center of a child molestation ring kind of run by John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's ally. A man even went there and shot up Comet Pizza based on these phony reports. As somebody who studies not just journalism and communications, but the history of these things, is something like that happening more frequently than it did in the past, where bizarre stories that have the thinnest connection to some kind of reality are taking on a life of their own?
Campbell: I think that it probably is, that these sorts of wild stories are gaining traction. We can readily blame social media for giving these stories that kind of traction. I would like to take a broader view of fake news. I think a good working definition is that fake news is false, erroneous, dubious, dubious tales that circulate widely, whether they're intentional or otherwise. They have the effect of corrupting or warping or distorting popular discourse. They're false narratives.
I think too often we tend to say, "Well, they come from the nether reaches of the Internet, the nether reaches of social media." But we have a number of cases; you just mentioned the CNN Scaramucci story as one example. There have been many others in recent months that …
Gillespie: Right. There's the New York Times and had a house editorial claiming that in the context of the shooting of Steve Scalise by a Bernie Sanders supporter, where Steve Scalise was actually wounded fairly seriously while practicing for a charity softball game with a bunch of GOP congressmen and senators. In the house editorial of the New York Times, they've mentioned in passing that Sarah Palin had a direct connection with the shooter of Representative Gabby Giffords of Arizona which they retracted. They ended up pulling. They retracted, they corrected that, but that's another case where, where that was coming from is totally unclear.
Campbell: It's a false narrative in any event and it's one of many that have cropped up in recent weeks and months. Right as Trump was being inaugurated, Time Magazine had the report that Trump had removed the bust of Reverend Martin Luther King from the Oval Office, which was wrong. But Trump supporters remember that story as an example of what they call fake news. The Washington Post had a story about the Russians having infiltrated or penetrated the U.S. electrical grid …
Gillespie: Through Vermont.
Campbell: … through a utility in Vermont. It proved to be inaccurate. CNN also had a story, I guess, earlier this month in June that Comey was going to refute or dispute Donald Trump claim that he was not under FBI investigation. That story CNN had to retract as well. These are only three or four examples of many and it makes you begin to wonder what the problems are with the news media. These are not necessarily new, but these are reputable mainstream, if you will, news organizations that apparently are not doing a very good of fact-checking or of allowing anonymous sources to run wild.
Campbell: It's not the first time and we have a lot of historical examples of this, but that it would happen now during a period in which president and press relations are really stretched to the breaking point, almost. It makes you wonder why these news organizations are not doing a more thorough job of checking, fact-checking, double-checking, and being a bit wary of anonymous sources.
Gillespie: Let me ask you because there's two broad theories that I've seen in a number of places. One, and this specifically kind of goes to the New York Times in that story, the suggestion that Sarah Palin had some kind of association with the shooter, Jared Loughner, I guess, of Gabby Giffords. But the Times, which has been under a lot of economic pressures, they've been cutting a lot of people and they've cut a lot of copy editors who don't just make sure that punctuation is correct, but also do fact-checking. Some people say, "Look, this is what happens when you start cutting staff in newsrooms. It gets shoddier and shoddier work and less oversight."
Another alternative theory is that the press is suffering from Trump derangement syndrome that the press, generally speaking, typically votes more for liberal candidates and, certainly, for Democrats for presidents, this is well-established in a number of surveys, that they hate Donald Trump so much that they just want to run with any story that they think will lead to his impeachment or his downfall. Do you think those stories have any validity to them in those causes or are those also kind of narratives that either let the media off the hook or feed into the kind of fever dreams of right-wingers who, at least going back to the Barry Goldwater days, always feel like they're being treated poorly by the press?
Campbell: Nick, I think it's a bit of both. I think both factors are contributing to this spate, if you will, of fake news or false narratives that mainstream reputable news organizations are putting out there. Cutback in the newsrooms, I mean New York Times is going through a downsizing of its ranks of copy editors in a controversial way. That cannot be good because those copy editors, many of them are topnotch professionals with many years of experience. To lose that kind of staffing, it cannot be good for the overall report of the New York Times.
New York Times also recently dismissed its public editor and said we're not going to have any more of these public editors, or in other words in-house ombuds-persons or ombudsmen. Liz Spayd was the last one. I thought she was very good and I don't think she was treated very well by the New York Times. I think she was writing some stuff that was provocative, that was getting into some of the intellectual diversity issues in the New York Times newsroom. I don't think they kind of liked all that. She was recently let go and the position was abandoned. I think there is something to the cutbacks in staff not only in the Times, but elsewhere.
The Trump derangement syndrome, yeah, it's harder to put a empirical finger on that and identify, "Yeah, this is what's going on." But, boy, the cases of misreported or erroneously reported major news stories begin to make you wonder, "Are the news media just out there to get Trump?" The relationship with the president is very tense and is very strained and very stretched, and probably more stretched than strained than it has been in the recent past.
Gillespie: I was going to ask you in a historical context, does Trump have an especially bad relationship with the press? It's also true that Donald Trump has gone out of his way in a way that Barack Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton, certainly, they all took shots at the press, but Trump has said … He's singled out specific reporters and media owners, people like NBC's Katy Tur who was on the campaign trail with him. He's talked about Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Washington Post as somebody he wants to go after and get. Is Trump … Does he have the worst relationship and is he also provoking them by saying, "We're going to open up the libel laws and we're going to go after all the false news people at CNN and the New York Times," and what have you?
Campbell: There's no doubt that Trump is provoking people and provoking the news media. I think he's doing that because he likes to, because he thinks he has a case against the news media. The recent story with CNN and Scaramucci is an example of that, in his view, in any case. It also plays to his base. I think a lot of Trump supporters really detest the news media, don't trust the news media, think that the big-time news media, the New York, Washington, L.A.-based media are to be treated with some suspicion, if not hostility.
Trump's tweeting in his attacks on the news media certainly do play to the base. They love it when Donald Trump gives the middle finger to the news media. They love it when he calls them out for fake news or false narratives. I think Trump is pretty savvy in a crude way to be doing that. I don't think this is the worst case of a president's taking on the news media, not in this country's history.
Journalists are not being thrown in jail as they were during the John Adams administration. The second president of the United States threw 10 or 12 journalists in jail because he didn't like what they were writing. They opposed to his policies, opposed to his political party. As I say, 10 or 12 of them spent time in prison because of what they wrote. We're not anywhere near that case just yet, for sure.
Gillespie: Although, ironically, or maybe not ironically, but in a weird echo of that, President Obama of all people who enjoyed, generally speaking, very closer or pretty good terms with the press put people in jail or subpoenaed them for supposedly leaking information. He went after journalists pretty hammering times, really, relatively speaking.
Campbell: Sure. He used the Espionage Act, 100-year-old law that was attempt to deal with spying in the United States during World War I. Obama used the Espionage Act more often than any previous presidents ever had. He was going after leakers. He was going after sources for journalists. He was even going after some journalists himself. I don't think that people were talking about an Obama derangement syndrome when they brought this stuff up, but I think we tend to overlook Obama's fairly aggressive relationship with the news media and certainly the sources, not on the sources or government sources, feeding information to the news media. The use of the Espionage Act in the Obama administration I think we've largely forgotten how frequently that was used.
Gillespie: Talk a bit about Trump in relation to somebody like Lyndon Johnson who didn't put people in jail, but he was able to use the FCC and equal time laws to go after … to shut down certain types of press against, or Richard Nixon who famously had an enemy's list, and I think at the top of the list, as he would never let you forget the late NPR reporter Daniel Schorr with those. I mean there was a lot of journalists on that. Is Trump as bad as these guys? Is he worse or is it simply different where there … I guess presidents are always working the press one way or the other.
Campbell: Right. I don't think Trump has much interest in working or dealing with the press on a friendly relationship. He doesn't have much interest in doing that. He's more inclined to go after them using this platform, Twitter, that was unavailable, not yet in existence for the likes of Johnson and Nixon. These guys did not like the news media. Johnson would famously call up the heads of network news organizations and give them a piece of his mind if he didn't like the story that they published, that they broadcast. I think, if anything, it's worse, it's more aggressive, it's more hostile, what Trump is engaging in with the news media.
The media are, in many cases, in these self-inflicted wounds that they're bearing, I think they're giving Trump ammunition. They're giving Trump examples to use against them. Nick, I just don't know where this is going to end up, how intense can it get. It's been pretty intense and we're not even, what, six months into his administration.
Gillespie: Well, according to Gallup …
Campbell: If we go for three and a half more years like this, I don't know.
Gillespie: Yes. Well, I know. According to Gallup, annually, they release a poll or a survey about confidence in American institutions. As of last year, they came out about a year ago, it was June, I don't think they've released the newest one, but only about 20% of Americans had what they said was a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the news media. This is basically a historic low or a recent historic low. Would you argue that the media does …
Gillespie: That the media actually is deserving of public contempt or lack of confidence based on their behavior?
Campbell: Well, with these major prominent cases of getting it wrong, some of which we've talked about earlier, and there are many others, too, I think that these high-profile cases of media error really do help fuel the notion that the news media are not to be trusted. I'm not so sure, Nick, that the news media are taking these poll results seriously enough, that they're doing enough to say, "All right, what should we be doing in response to this?" We're probably not going to get the approval ratings or the favorability ratings or the trust ratings back up to where they were in the 1970s, but nonetheless, I think news media have an obligation to treat these kinds of results with a little more seriousness than they have and …
Gillespie: Yeah. It is interesting that in the '70s, at least, obviously, the White House, the presidency, to a certain degree Congress and big business had very low approval ratings, but the press went in the other direction because that was an era where they were holding the powerful accountable. But now we have a president like Donald Trump with historic low approval ratings for his time in office and the press also tanking. There might be something new there.
Do you think at all that … Is the press particularly kind of mainstream media? It's funny to think of CNN, which 30 years ago was alternative media or Fox News as alternative media, although they're the powerhouses now. Among the factors that are making them do shoddy work, is it that they know they're under more competition? How much of this is a marketplace problem where they feel like if they sit on something or if they wait to get a second or a third anonymous source, much less somebody on the record, they're going to miss a story and, hence, fall even further behind? How much of that is feeding into bad journalistic practices, do you think?
Campbell: I don't think that's a new phenomenon, by any means. We've seen a number of cases over the years in which journalists went with a really good story before they had it really pin down and proved to be inerrants or proved to be inerrant. One of them that comes to mind immediately is the story about Jessica Lynch. She was a 19-year-old wave-like blond Army Private First Class who was in a maintenance unit in Iraq with the U.S. Army, a unit that was never expected to see combat at all. But because this unit at the tail end of a long convoy entering Iraq during the first days of the Iraq War made a wrong turn, they found themselves in a firefight and an ambush.
The Washington Post went with this sensational story, an electrifying story that Jessica Lynch was acting like a female Rambo. She was pouring lead into attacking Iraqis despite herself being shot and stabbed and seeing her comrades fall around her. She kept firing at the attacking Iraqis until she ran out of ammunition. It was a great story in the early days of the Iraq War. It was a story that was wrong at all important respects. Jessica Lynch was there, her unit was ambushed, but she never fired a shot, never fired a shot in anger in Iraq.
She was not shot. She was not stabbed. She was seriously injured in the crash of a Humvee that she was in that was trying to escape the ambush. In important respects, the Washington Post story was completely wrong, and the Post never ever explained how it got it so badly wrong and it really made no attempt to correct the record on it. They've been inclined to let it die or to let it be suspected that the Pentagon made up this narrative about Jessica Lynch in order to sell it to the American people to boost support for the Iraq War, none of which is true. The Pentagon didn't even want to get near this story. They treated it as if it were radioactive.
This is a case of anonymous sourcing doing a paper or doing a news organization no good at all. We've seen this kind of thing many times in the past.
That's one that comes to my mind almost immediately.
Gillespie: It's interesting to mention the Iraq War because I guess it's still combat operations have ended, but we sent more troops there. We've got people in Syria. We're still in that part of the world. Obviously, the mainstream media also did really bad work about weapons of mass destruction, whether it was the Post or the New York Times. USA Today was more skeptical, but you have that. Even as we forget the individual cases, and I admit I hadn't thought about Jessica Lynch in years, but now that you bring that back, you look at people like Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who gets fired or suspended for lying about stuff again related to war situations.
But then he takes a paid vacation and then comes back, and he's on MSNBC. The press, or not the press, but legacy media, big media companies almost seem to be thumbing their nose in the idea of like that, that lying consequences or errors have consequences.
Campbell: You're right. Although the Scaramucci case of CNN, it's proven that the journalist can and do pay a high price. But in the Jessica Lynch case, the reporters on that story, their careers did not suffer at all. As I said, they never explained how or why they got it so badly wrong. That story, the Lynch story has the effect of really concealing the story about the real hero of that ambush, a guy who either stayed behind or left behind, an American who did fire and attacking Iraqis until his ammunition ran out. The Post was never interested in that story, the story of Sergeant Donald Waters who was captured by Iraqis and executed on the battlefield.
That story was documented later on, but the Post never want to touch it, never want to get close to it. The story about Jessica Lynch, a young woman, a female in the military was far more enticing, was far more electrifying to the Post. It was a story that was picked up by news organizations around the world. Everybody was running that story. It was too good not to be true, and it proved to be quite wrong.
Gillespie: Let me shift to a slightly different type of journalism and this is more about analysis and commentary, and these things have blended. They've always been blended in journalism. It's very rare when there's something like straight news. When James Comey, the FBI Director, was fired by Donald Trump, there was a wrath of stories and in Media Myth Alert, you wrote a lot about this. A lot of journalists, and I'm thinking of people like James Fallows, who's one of the most respected opinion journalist and kind of big-thinking journalist, had a piece where he talked about how the firing of Comey is worse than Watergate.
There was a whole kind of subindustry of articles about how firing Comey was worse than Watergate. You pushed back on that. Talk a little bit about the long history of Watergate as this kind of Cronstedt moment … That's the wrong word. Watershed moment in American journalism that is constantly being brought up and constantly being misused. Why was the Comey firing not Watergate redo or not worse than Watergate? Why does Watergate cast such a long shadow still over American journalism?
Campbell: Precisely. What is it with Watergate that makes it such a compelling point of comparison? I think it's because of the myth of Watergate, the media myth. The dominant narrative of Watergate over the years has become the notion that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post, through their dogged and tireless reporting, uncovered the evidence that brought down Richard Nixon's corrupt presidency. That's the central dominant narrative of Watergate and it is a mythical narrative. It's journalism's go-to media myth.
It's tireless. It's timeless. It pops up all the time. It's popped up frequently in the spate of suspicions and allegations about Trump and Russia, and supposed collusion with Moscow. It's just a timeless and tireless point of reference for journalists because of the notion …
Gillespie: If I can, just before you can get to that, one of the things that's hilarious that you keep pointing out is that, at various points, all of the principals of the Watergate story, whether it's Ben, Bradley, the editor-in-chief of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, the publisher, Woodward and Bernstein themselves, and I think it was Bob Woodward who actually said it's absolute horse shit that they did that.
Campbell: That's right.
Gillespie: But it still persists. And of course, they dined out on it. They never turned down an opportunity to talk about it.
Campbell: No. No. that's right.
Gillespie: It's fascinating that even the people involved in the story are like, "No, no. You really have it all wrong." To go back to the heroic journalist trope that you write a lot about, that's what comes out of Watergate, right?
Campbell: That's right.
Gillespie: That journalists are the prime movers in American in the politics and history.
Campbell: That's right. They are at the decisive center. If not for Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon stays in office. People wouldn't have known about the Watergate crimes, which is totally nonsense, which is totally wrong. Nixon would have survived his second term. He would have survived Watergate if not for the tapes, if not for the audiotapes that he made of most of his conversations in the White House from 1971 to 1973.
Woodward and Bernstein did not disclose the existence of those tapes. Those tapes were disclosed by a Senate-select committee that was investigating Watergate in the summer of 1973. It was Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide who told the Senate committee, the select committee about the existence of the tapes. That turned Watergate, the whole Watergate investigation on a dime. It was like, now, it became a chase to get the tapes. What's on the tapes? Do they exonerate the president or they prove his guilt? It turned out to be the latter and to prove that he did indeed obstruct justice.
Within days after the Watergate break in June of 1972, he met with one of his top aides and approved a plan by which the CIA would tell the FBI to end or abort its investigation in the Watergate. That plan never went very far, but the fact that Nixon was countenancing such a diversion was obstruction of justice and forced his resignation in August of 1974. None of that has to do with Woodward or Bernstein of the Washington Post. That was key to the outcome of the scandal.
All the details, all those details and many others that characterize Watergate have become foggy, have become faint, have become distant. People don't remember. They didn't have a good handle on it at the time, in the '70s, when it was unfolding, yet alone 40, 45 years later when we're trying to remember what happened in Watergate. The easy explanation, the simple explanation, the straightforward explanation is that, Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged reporting, brought down Nixon. As I say, that's become the dominant narrative of the scandal. It was …
Gillespie: Then you have a great movie as well, which you never tire pointing out because it has to be pointed out, which is that the most famous line related to Watergate, follow the money, was invented by the Oscar-winning screenwriter, William Goldman.
Gillespie: That it doesn't appear in the actual book of all the president's men.
Campbell: That's right. It didn't appear in any Washington Post's story until years after Watergate appears, in none of the notes that the reporters made. It doesn't, as you say, appear in the book. It did appear in the movie and it's one of the most memorable lines of Watergate, but it was a line that was never spoken. One reason that this myth lives on is that Woodward and Bernstein are still around. They were in their early 30s when Watergate was unfolding in the '70s. They're now in their 70s, but they're still out there. They're still high profile. They and John Dean and Alexander Butterfield, and that's about it. There are actually many other prime principal figures from the Watergate era that are still alive.
Gillespie: I guess that was …
Campbell: So, inevitably, I think, the attention goes to them.
Gillespie: There are smaller and bigger narratives, but kind of the meta narrative, too, was the idea of young people taking down the greatest generation as well. Actually, superseded possibly only by LBJ was the villain, right? He was the dysfunctional dad who was torturing and tormenting American youth. So, the idea of … That's the crowning glory of the '60s countercultures to bring down a president, or two presidents actually, because they kept Johnson from being able to run for a second full term.
Campbell: You could argue it was the announcement of the supremacy or the rise of the baby boomer generation.
Gillespie: Yeah, into institution power. Which also leads me to another one of the most persistent media myths that … And it's amazing because I envy you for coming up with the 10 great misreported stories. Actually, just between Watergate and the other one I'm about to bring up, which is the idea that Walter Cronkite single-handedly ended the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, because early in 1968, he did a documentary or a news report from there. He said like he didn't see how we could win and there's the apocryphal story that LBJ said, "When we've lost Cronkite, we've lost the country."
You point out again and again, not only does that constantly get repeated, but that it was actually in the fall of 1967 when for the first time a plurality of American said that Vietnam was a mistake, and that in the months after Cronkite made his conversation that's not even clear, or made a statement on TV, it's not clear that Johnson ever really saw it, and certainly didn't see it in real time.
Gillespie: But that the polls didn't change at all. It was still exactly the same number of people said, "It was a mistake," and the same number of people said it wasn't a mistake. What is it …
Gillespie: How do you combat those other than repeating? You do this doggedly. Media Myth Alert is like a great daily or weekly read because you're just updating a catalog of errors. What are the ways to fight back against that kind of mistake, a repeated mistake?
Campbell: Thank you for your kind words about the blog. I much appreciate that, Nick. I think the only way to combat, I've given this a fair amount of thought over the years, I don't think there's any other way to combat it than to call it out when you see it or when a major news organization indulges in a media myth that you pointed out. If it's repeated, if it's repetitious, I think you got to do it. You got to keep doing it. Even then, I think you have to realize, one has to realize that these media myths are probably going to persist. They're too good not to be true.
They are simplistic versions of complicated historical events that most people have forgotten about. The simplistic narratives make it easy to latch onto. They're easy to remember. They're easy to retell. They also, for the purposes of news media, plays the media and journalists at the decisive center of major events, of bringing down a president for the only time in the country's history, of ending a far-away war that was probably the most unpopular war or, if not, certainly one of the longest wars that the country has ever fought.
These are powerful moments in American history and to put the media or journalist at the decisive center is not only to flatter the media, but to recognize that they have considerable power. That's another element that I challenge in my research and in my ratings. I think that media power tends to be overstated, it tends to be episodic, and it tends to be, from time to time, we see examples of it, but most of the times, the media are not as powerful as we like to give them credit for or we tend to give them credit for.
Gillespie: Or they give credit to themselves, right?
Campbell: To themselves, right.
Gillespie: So, tell me …
Campbell: There's a lot of self-flattery in the media. That's for sure.
Gillespie: We go through eras where everybody wanted … I guess back in the '40s or something, everybody wanted to be a crusading attorney general like Thomas Dewey fighting crime. Now we want to be, or maybe not so much anymore, but there definitely, and I say this to somebody, I was born in '63, I didn't read all the President's Man or see the movie when it was in the theaters, but it was around like anybody who became a journalist wanted to be … You could be following food reviews, but you wanted to be the Woodward and Bernstein of restaurant reviewing. You wanted of movie reviews, of fashion, of everything.
Talk a little bit. You've been in American University for a long time. You've had a long academic career where you've been dealing with students who are interested in or go into media. Do you feel like they have a better bullshit detector than in the past or is it kind of like everything is new to everybody in the world? Our reporters, now that we have so many more news sources or information sources, maybe they're not new sources, are people more skeptical or do they actually check things out or are they more credible than ever?
Campbell: I think for students, the distrust of the news media is pretty intense and is pretty profound. They come to the university campus with those suspicions, with that distrust in mind. They've picked it up either from secondary school or from their life experiences or from whatever, but the distrust in the news media really runs deep among students today, it seems to me. Again, it's a bit anecdotal, but I've noticed it comes up in class, it comes up in conversations, and it comes up almost routinely, that there's this distrust about the news media.
As I say, the news media bring this on themselves in many ways, that there are many examples which the news media have screwed up, gotten it wrong. And those high profile cases do not help the credibility and the interest, I think, in wanting to pursue media careers. That said, though, there are many students who do want to do that, who do want to get into careers in the news media, which is heartening, I would say. It's a real complex situation, I think, with contemporary students, particularly undergraduate students, but they have the hostility, yet interest in the media.
Gillespie: How about the shift away from people who might become practitioners, media practitioners, writers, journalists, bloggers, you name it? Do you have advice for how readers can practice media literacy in an age where … Donald Trump is a liar. There's no question. You don't have to be hostile to him to recognize that he's bizarre and he will double and triple down on things that are just wrong all the time. Then the media itself seems to be doing some kind of weird dance with him, where it's almost like a mirror image or somewhat, but they're constantly. What are the tips for practicing media literacy where we can read through the news and try and approximate social reality in a meaningful and accurate way?
Campbell: When I was in journalism as a practicing journalists reporter, we used to talk about the sniff test. I think that's a good test for all users of the news media to apply. In other words, if this story doesn't smell quite right, if it's like opening a refrigerator door and recognizing that the cheese has gone bad, the smell is off, I think the consumers of the media can do a lot of that, can do a lot of their own sniff testing, applying their own logic to stories and saying, "Guys, it doesn't sound quite right." I think you can do this on individual stories as well as the broader narratives.
We have 51 elections in this country and we are supposed to believe that the Russians colluded or infiltrated these elections and swung the outcome to Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton. It just doesn't sound quite right. Logically, it doesn't sound quite right. I think using the sniff test is one that all users and consumers of the media can apply. Also, to be very wary of anonymous sourced stories, stories that are based exclusively or largely on anonymous sources. We've talked about some of them this afternoon. I think some of those can be treated with intense wariness by news consumers, because these are the kinds of stories that can often go wrong, can go badly wrong.
I think people have to try to check their own biases too. I think cultivating a degree of, what, intellectual diversity in the news outlets that they go to for news, information, and commentary, I think that that's very important, to develop a taste, if you will, for intellectual diversity, diverse viewpoints. It's another …
Gillespie: Do you worry about that? Because there are a number of studies I've read and I have actually seen wide … Well, I've seen different analysis, but people now can kind of self-segregate into reading stories that are going to confirm their biases or reading sources. What's interesting is that, in a lot of ways, say, like a pro-Trump organization like Breitbart.com, which was headed up by his adviser, Steve Bannon.
In a lot of ways, they've read the New York Times more than the typical kind of liberal in Westchester County does because they're constantly going to try and attack it. Do Breitbart.com or Alex Jones readers only traffic in that and then liberals might only read The Nation or MSNBC or something like that? Is that growing more now that there are more kind of niched news organization that seem to traffic in in one particular point of view?
Campbell: I think it's easier to find and find confirmation in news organizations that more or less adhere to your world view. I think that's easier to access than ever before. Cable TV is full of options that speak to those viewpoints. I think that cultivating a taste, even if it's a modest taste for intellectual diversity, really is a good way for people to become more media savvy, more media literate.
Don't assume that the best names in the media, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, are always going to get it right, to name three print outlets. Media are fallible and I think that recognizing that that's going to happen is important, too, in terms of enhancing media literacy. They're not always going to get it right, and we know.
Gillespie: Final question. In your estimation, was there ever a golden age of journalism? If so, when was it?
Campbell: Love that question, Nick. No, there was no golden age. I think that indulging in a golden age fallacy is dangerous. We tend to do that, looking back at Woodward and Bernstein or the Cronkite moment of 1968. To think that there was a time when journalists were really respected and were making a major difference in public life, there really never was such a time. To engage in speculation along those lines, I don't think, is very helpful or useful at all. In fact, it's misleading. It suggests that the media do have this importance, that do have this centrality, that do have this power that we could probably reclaim if only we do it just right, just so, I think that's a real misleading message that the media can tell themselves.
Gillespie: We will leave it there. We have been talking on the Reason Podcast with W. Joseph Campbell. He's a communications professor at American University and the author of the Invaluable and updated, regularly updated study "Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism." You can also read him on a regular basis at his great blog, Media Myth Alert, which updates and corrects persistent mistakes and news accounts about the past and present. Joe Campbell, thanks so much for talking with us.
Campbell: Nick, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you.
Gillespie: I am Nick Gillespie and this has been the Reason Podcast. Thanks for listening. And please subscribe to us on iTunes. While you're there, rate and review us, and let us know how we're doing. Thanks for listening.