W. Joseph Campbell

Confronting the mythology of Watergate

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I plan to call attention to prominent media myths of Watergate during a panel discussion in Montreal this afternoon, three days shy of the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in America’s gravest political scandal.

AEJMC 2014 panel_flier3The venue is the annual conference of AEJMC, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and other panelists include Max Holland, author of the well-received Watergate book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, and my colleague at American University, John C. Watson, author of Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.

Moderating the panel — titled “Beyond the Mythology of Watergate” — will be Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland and author of the award-winning Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.

I intend to discuss the dominant narrative of Watergate — the mythical notion that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate crimes of Nixon and forced his resignation.

It’s what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The trope is endlessly appealing to journalists and has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate. It is, after all, a handy proxy for grasping the essence of Watergate — Nixon resigned because of criminal misconduct — while avoiding the scandal’s mind-numbing complexity.

The many layers of  Watergate — the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not easily understood or readily recalled these days. The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

Hence, the enduring appeal and tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. It’s history lite, history made accessible, history made simple.

As I plan to point out today, the disclosures by Woodward and Bernstein about the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972 weren’t nearly enough to force the president’s resignation. And the decisive revelations of Watergate — among them the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — weren’t the work of the Washington Post.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term in office if not for the Watergate tapes, which clearly showed him approving a cover-up of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.Getting It Wrong_cover

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the film adaptation of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

The movie in fact ignores and even denigrates the work of other agencies and actors in the many-tenacled investigations of Watergate.

But why, some observers might ask, do Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein, still matter after 40 years? Why does anyone much care?

They care because Woodward and Bernstein are living reminders of the unmasking of America’s greatest political scandal — one that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

Woodward and Bernstein are septuagenarians but they speak eagerly about their salad days, especially on occasions presented by the anniversaries of Watergate. The Post brought them together last week for what turned out to be a surprisingly boring look back at Watergate. That tedious program notwithstanding, their saga remains an appealing parable — that dogged and imaginative reporting can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change.

They very much are the heroic faces of Watergate, the journalists who saved us from Nixon.

WJC

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Watergate made boring

In Anniversaries, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 31, 2014 at 9:45 am

The Washington Post brought together its legendary Watergate reporters last night for a lengthy look back at the scandal that culminated 40 years ago next week with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

The program was notable for how it made Watergate seem tedious and stale.

(Woodward (Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

Woodward: Not much new

It was striking how little new the reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, had to say about covering a scandal that catapulted them to fame and wealth. In that, perhaps, was implicit recognition that their reporting contributed marginally at best to Watergate’s outcome.

Given that the program was convened in an auditorium at the Post, it was a bit surprising there were no self-congratulatory claims that Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon’s presidency, no embrace of what I call the hero-journalist myth of Watergate.

To his credit, Bernstein acknowledged the forces that combined to end Nixon’s presidency, including the Senate select committee that uncovered the decisive evidence of Watergate — the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over the tape recordings subpoenaed by prosecutors.

But mostly, the program lurched from topic to topic, from a lengthy discussion about Nixon’s abuses and his “tortured mind” (as the moderator, Ruth Marcus, put it) to non-Watergate topics such as the scandalous IRS conduct in targeting conservative political organizations for scrutiny.

Woodward and Bernstein took turns plugging each other’s books. Author Elizabeth Drew, who also was on the panel, went on and on and on about Nixon’s criminality and about how the IRS scandal is nothing like Watergate.

Bernstein, invariably voluble as well, lavished praised on Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, the Post’s executive editor and publisher during the Watergate period. Woodward cracked a few jokes, injecting what little humor the program offered. And Marcus asked a ludicrous and unanswerable question about what Watergate would be like had it happened in age of Twitter.

Notably missing was any insightful appraisal of the journalism of Watergate or any discussion of the scandal’s enduring mysteries (such as did Nixon know in advance about the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 of the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee). Woodward and Bernstein rehashed a few reporting anecdotes familiar to people knowledgeable about Watergate; among them, Attorney General John Mitchell’s vulgar remark that Graham risked finding her tit caught in a ringer.

WaPo panel_crowd

In line for a tedious program

What was most impressive about the two-hour program was the turnout it attracted: Easily 1,000 people showed up, crowding the newspaper’s auditorium and an adjacent overflow room. (The editor of the Post’s “Book World” section, Ron Charles, said in a Tweet last night that he had “never seen a crowd at The Post like the one lined up for … Woodward & Bernstein talk on Watergate.”)

The Post’s public relations staff clearly was ill-equipped to handle such a crowd. More than a few people who thought they had registered online found that the Post staff had no record of their having signed up. And at one point, the video feed to the overflow room went dark, prompting dozens of people to enter the already crowded auditorium to stand and watch as the panelists droned on.

WJC

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WaPo now embracing the dominant myth of Watergate?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 22, 2014 at 8:05 pm

To its credit, the Washington Post over the years has mostly declined to embrace the dominant media myth about the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Nixon resigns_1974

Not the Post’s doing: Nixon resigns, 1974

The dominant narrative is that Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency. It’s one of 10 media-driven myths debunked in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong.

Principals at the Post, among them Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, typically have steered well clear of what I call the hero-journalist myth. Graham, who died in 2001, said in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Michael Getler, who was an outstanding ombudsman for the Post, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

In earthier terms, Woodward, too, has scoffed at the dominant narrative, declaring in an interview in 2004:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

But of late, such myth-avoidance has slipped.

In an article last month about the planned demolition of the parking garage where Woodward periodically conferred with a stealthy, high-level source codenamed “Deep Throat,” the Post said the source “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

The source — who revealed himself years later to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official — did no such thing.

As I noted soon after the Post article appeared, if Felt had shared obstruction-of-justice evidence with Woodward — and if the Post had published such information — the uproar would have been so intense that Nixon certainly would have had to resign the presidency long before he did in August 1974.

But it was not until late summer 1974 — several months after Felt’s retirement from the FBI — when unequivocal evidence emerged about Nixon’s attempt to block FBI’s investigation into the foiled burglary in 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.

Watergate marker_cropped

The marker with the error

(I also pointed out that the Post’s erroneous description of the information Felt shared with Woodward was almost word-for-word identical to a passage on the historical marker that was placed outside the garage in 2011. The marker says: “Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.” The Post article said Felt “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”)

In any case, the Post hasn’t corrected its mischaracterization about the information Felt passed on to Woodward.

And in today’s issue, John Kelly, a popular Post columnist, referred to Bernstein as “the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.”

Kelly’s column neither explained nor elaborated on Bernstein’s putative “role in bringing down” Nixon. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was not decisive in Watergate’s outcome. Their contributions — while glamorized in the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men — were marginal in forcing Nixon’s resignation.

Rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity required the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, as I noted in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings that he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into  the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, seminal crime of Watergate.

It is not clear whether the recent examples of myth-embrace reflect laziness, inattentive editing, or a gradual inclination to embrace an interpretation of Watergate that is beguiling but misleading. It is an easy-to-remember, simplified version of the history of America’s greatest political scandal.

And it’s wrong.

WJC

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