Media Mythmakers

Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us

Author: Benjamin Radford

Fake news? Biased media sources? This hard-hitting critique of our media culture examines not only the ways in which the public is often deceived, but the media’s role in propagating those deceptions. But Media Mythmakers goes beyond criticism to give concrete examples of the damage that manipulation of the news causes. From missing children to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, from the efforts to end slavery to AIDS education, myths and deception in the media threaten us all. While the public is being misled, real problems go unaddressed and resources are wasted on misguided ideas. In an increasingly complex world, where accurate and unbiased information is more important than ever, this book provides a timely and much-needed analysis.

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Chapter 1. Advertising and the Illusion of Meaning

Chapter 2. Advertising, News, and Entertainment


Chapter 3. The News Bias: Distorting Reality and Feeding Fears

Chapter 4. Illusions of Participation and Influence

Chapter 5. Tears in the Camera Eye

Chapter 6. Tragedy as License to Abandon Responsible Journalism

Chapter 7. The Changing Face of News


1Chapter 8. Cashing in on Crises and Manufacturing Martyrs

Chapter 9. Emotional Legislation: Solutions without Problems


Chapter 10. Losing Trust and Resources

Chapter 11. Threats to Life and Health

Chapter 12. Threats to Freedom and Justice

Conclusion: Toward Solutions

Sneak Peek

The world is shaped by myths. Our understanding of ourselves and our culture is based largely upon what we are told by the media. Yet much of the media’s content includes unexamined assumptions and myths. These myths are stories, themes, and ideas that embody an aspect of culture. Politicians, advertisers, activists, journalists, and others create myths to manipulate how we think, what we value, and what we fear.

Frequently these myths are also myths in the sense that they are fictions: They are erroneous half- or nontruths provided by others to alter our picture of the world around us. Our culture puts stock in the myth of child abduction by strangers, when in fact such abductions are very rare. We accept the myth that simply throwing money at a social problem will fix it. We allow myths to frighten us, then we spend money and pass laws to protect us from our phantom fears.

The media create myths all the time. Magazines claiming to have their fingers on America’s collective pulse jockey to be the first to name the latest trend, identify the next big star, and sell their prepackaged zeitgeist report to hip-hungry consumers.

Our myths change over time, but the efforts to commercialize and label them remain the same. In the past twenty years, for example, America has seen its heroes cycle among a handful of archetypes: saviors (firemen and police, for example), warriors (sports and military figures), creators (businessmen, artists, and actors), and victims or martyrs.

When strong currents of our victim-centric culture came to the fore, we saw a new set of heroes arise. Those with dread diseases and some measure of fame who spoke of their struggles became heroes. Thus actors such as Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox were transformed from modestly successful but unremarkable B-list actors to courageous heroes telling their inspiring stories.

For a while, many of America’s heroes were aggressive and wealthy businessmen. The luster of those heroes gradually tarnished as one after another got indicted in fraud, junk bond, and corporate scandals that left millions of investors billions of dollars poorer.

The September 11, 2001, attacks breathed new life into our hero myths. Many of our old ideas of heroes seemed to pale in comparison to the brave firefighters and policemen who risked their lives in the attacks—as well as those on a doomed plane who sacrificed themselves to save others.

The cycle will continue, and eventually other hero myths will emerge. What they all have in common, though, is that they are largely driven by the media. They are media myths not in the sense that they are necessarily falsehoods, but in the sense that they are part of a story, a narrative created in the symbiotic relationship between the popular media and the public.

Deborah Tannen, in her book The Argument Culture, says that “culture, in a sense, is an environment of narratives that we hear repeatedly until they seem to make self-evident sense in explaining human behavior.”1 Many of these narratives take the form of myths, and before we act on those myths we should examine them closely.

When advertisers promise that we will be smarter, richer, or more popular if we use certain products, we are being told a myth. This myth manipulates our fears and illusions to get us to spend our money. When the news media report on current events, they frequently cast them in time-honored themes and motifs dating back to Shakespeare and earlier. The media build up heroes, such as Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., and then follow their tragic deaths. Often the news media create myths and give us merely the illusions of news and content. Advocates and politicians offer up their own myths—some true, others false, but most exaggerated—to manipulate public opinion and policy. They give us illusions of problems to fix— and sometimes the illusion that they’re fixing them.

Without realizing it, we frequently act out the prescripted roles given us: buying products, giving money, and even crying on cue. But while we’re all busy with our comfortable lies, pretending that advertising copy means something and that network news is actually unbiased and informative, real problems are ignored and fester. Common sense proves not so common in the face of manipulated emotion, fear, and panic. Our children are not being protected and social problems are not being seriously addressed, due largely to the illusions we are fed.