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Old News: The Truth and Myths

Posted by Adam Benckeser on September 11, 2008

I entered a large room filled with natural, white light that filtered in through the window-walls by means of an overly large plywood door. I understood immediately that the room, and the entire Reynolds Journalism Institute, really, was the product of a mind rather interested in modern design. I failed to see the irony while I spent my midday hours there, immersed in the tales and news stories of the past. Berkley Hudson set the stage for the panel on what was referred to as “Outlaws, Libby Custer, and Technology: The Enduring Power of the Myth-Making Journalistic Narrative.”

Mr. Hudson prepared us for the point of the symposium by first challenging the audience, alumni and students alike, to define for themselves what is myth and what is “true story.” Mr. Hudson combined personal and historical examples in order to enforce the point of the personal decision that must be made. It is for the citizen to determine for himself what he believes, and for the journalist to give the citizen the truth “metaphysically, mythologically, and journalistically;” that is to say, to put it in context. That was the specific point Mr. Hudson endeavored to make to the young journalism students in the audience: as journalists, we do not embellish or expunge.

Libby Custer was the first example confronted by the rest of the panel and she was covered by Janice Hume, a graduate from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Mrs. Hume spoke of Elizabeth Custer’s use of the press (despite never being employed as a newspaper reporter or editor) to defend the honor of her fallen husband, General George Armstrong Custer, who was shockingly crushed along with 5 companies of men at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Libby Custer wrote 256 for newspapers and magazines across the country, published books, and went on speaking tours in order to protect her husband’s honor even after death. Because of her efforts, General Custer remained prevalent in the mind of the American citizen and he was seen as a traditional hero. Of course, the question of the truth in her statements is posed by many military historians who tend to agree with the view of General Custer in the movie Little Big Man: a racist lunatic. Whether Mrs. Custer elected to embellish the stories of her husband or the military historians of her day expunged details is the heart of the matter.

Cathy Jackson spoke next about Jesse James and his band of outlaws. According to Mrs. Jackson, “95% of what you hear about him is a lie, 5% is the truth.” This is evident again by the relatively poor quality of journalism of the time. Little was written about Jesse James and his infamous gang of outlaws in newspaper because “all the world loves an outlaw,” and never was that more true than in the mid-late 1800s when Jesse James robbed from the banks that foreclosed the average man’s farm. Of course, to cover this man’s exploits would be foolhardy, then, at best (for the government) and the newspapers largely avoided the subject. It appears to make sense even more when you understand, as Jackson put it, that Jesse James was the greatest outlaw in the history of the United States of America and the public’s love of him would be greater than lesser outlaws.

In fact, the stories of Jesse James, his brother Frank, and the Younger brothers are so muddled and varied that it was Jackson’s recommendation to not even worry about separating the myth from the fact. Over 37 movies have been made centered around his character (one by his son that failed miserably and caused him to enter the world of the bankrupt) including Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. It should be noted that throughout the presentation, Mrs. Jackson inserted rather colorful and enlivening comments (that kept the audience much entertained) explaining the tendancy of filmmaker’s to cast attractive actors for famous outlaws no matter how putrid-looking the outlaws themselves actually were.

Julien Gorbach told the story of Bonnie and Clyde, having studied the media archives on them thoroughly. Julien described in detail how the newspapers of the early 1900s followed outlaws of their day much more closely than in the times of Jesse James. Bonnie and Clyde, as well as others, manipulated this as best they could. Most criminals went to extreme lengths to win over the public, as far as buying new clothes for kidnapped hostages and Bonnie and Clyde were no exception.

The presentation was very informative in general and the in-depth examples provided hammered home the point Mr. Hudson made from the very beginning: there shall be no embellishing or expunging for journalists of today- we have come too far for that.

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