W. Joseph Campbell

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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Check out The 1995 blog

In Anniversaries, Year studies on July 2, 2014 at 6:00 am

Readers of Media Myth Alert are invited to visit the just-launched 1995 blog, which will be directing attention to the important moments of 1995, and helping to promote my forthcoming book about that decisive year.

1995bookcoverThe book is 1995: The Year the Future Began and will be published later this year by the University of California Press. (The book may be pre-ordered through Amazon.com, the retailing giant that began selling books online in July 1995, as well as Barnes & Noble)

The respective chapters of 1995 are:

  • “The Year of the Internet,” which considers the emergence of the Internet and World Wide Web into mainstream consciousness
  • “Terror in the heartland,” which discusses the Oklahoma City bombing and its consequences
  • “O.J., DNA, and the ‘Trial of the Century,” which takes up the sensational, months-long double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson
  • “Peace at Dayton and the ‘hubris bubble,’” which revisits the U.S.-brokered peace talks that ended the vicious war in Bosnia, and
  • “Clinton meets Lewinsky,” which addresses the origins and effects of the sex-and-lies scandal that led to the impeachment in 1998 of President Bill Clinton.

These events and moments were, as I write in 1995, “profound in their respective ways and, taken together, they define a watershed year at the cusp of the millennium. Nineteen ninety-five in many ways effectively marked the close of the one century, and the start of another.”

I also write about 1995:

“It is striking how a sense of the improbable often flavored the year and characterized its watershed moments. Oklahoma City was an utterly improbable setting for an attack of domestic terrorism of unprecedented dimension. Dayton, Ohio, was an improbable venue for weeks of multiparty negotiations that concluded by ending the faraway war in Bosnia. The private study and secluded hallway off the Oval Office at the White House were the improbable hiding places for Clinton’s dalliance” with a 22-year-old intern named Monica Lewinsky.

“The improbable,” I add, “was a constant of the year.”

1995 is my sixth book. I have also written Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, an award-winning work that the University of California Press brought out in 2010.

I also have written The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms (2006); The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents (2005); Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies (2001), and The Emergent Independent Press in Benin and Cote d’Ivoire: From Voice of the State to Advocate of Democracy (1998).

WJC

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No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on June 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Media-driven myths can be tenacious because they offer simplified, easy-to-grasp versions of complex events of the past.

That’s why, for example, the Watergate myth — that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is so hardy. It’s easy to grasp and easy to retell.

Not to blame: Hearst's 'Evening Journal'

Hearst’s Evening Journal

So it is with the Spanish-American War, a brief conflict in 1898 that confirmed the United States as a global power.

The media myth of the Spanish-American War — the simplified but inaccurate account of the conflict’s origins — is that it was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening Journal, and the San Francisco Examiner.

But the notion is absurd, embraced by few if any serious historians of the era — and by no recent biographer of Hearst.

Nonetheless, the hoary myth made an appearance at Politico Magazine the other day, in a commentary titled “The Neocon Surge.”

The commentary said prominent neoconservatives “are going into overdrive to pin the blame for the collapse of Iraq on anyone other than themselves.” And it called out the scholar Robert Kagan, saying he had “sounded his favorite, and the neocons’, favorite theme” in his 2006 book, Dangerous Nation.

“He depicted America as uniquely virtuous, pursuing idealistic aims, while presenting all other great powers as fighting for venal and self-interested motives. So assiduous was Kagan in his fanciful interpretation of American actions,” the Politico commentary said, “that even the Spanish-American War, seen by most historians as the product of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow press and the U.S. desire to expand its influence on behalf of economic imperialism, becomes something else entirely — a bright and shining crusade for freedom….”

What especially interests Media Myth Alert is not resurgent neoconservatism but the claim that the Spanish-American War was a “product” of Hearst’s yellow press, a claim Politico vaguely attributed to “most historians.”

Politico is wrong on both counts.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer, “did not force — it could not have forced— the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

Claims that the yellow press brought on the war, I wrote, “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.”

In 1898, those factors centered around a diplomatic impasse between the United States and Spain over Spanish rule of Cuba, which had been the scene of an islandwide rebellion since early 1895.

In a failed attempt to put down the rebellion, Spanish authorities sent as many as 200,000 troops to the island and imposed a policy called “reconcentration,” which forcibly removed thousands of Cubans — mostly old men, women, and children — into garrison towns where they could offer neither support nor supplies to the Cuban rebels.

Spain’s “reconcentration” policy gave rise to malnutrition and disease: Unknown tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died from illness and starvation.

The humanitarian disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism. The desperate conditions on Cuba were in 1897 and early 1898 a frequent topic of reporting in the American press — including, but certainly not limited to, the newspapers of Hearst. The yellow press reported on but it did not create the terrible effects of Spain’s disastrous “reconcentration” policy.

A leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, quite correctly observed that the abuses and suffering caused by that policy “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

In the end, the humanitarian crisis on Cuba, and Spain’s inability to resolve the crisis, weighed decisively in the U.S. decision to go to war in 1898 — not the content of the yellow press, and not “economic imperialism,” as Politico put it.

Warmonger?

Young Hearst: No warmonger

Almost always unaddressed in claims that Hearst fomented the war is any discussion about how his newspapers’ content accomplished the trick: By what mechanism was newspaper content transformed into policy and military action?

It’s left unaddressed because there was no such mechanism.

The mechanism wasn’t an agenda-setting function: Hearst’s newspapers, attention-grabbing though they were, did not set the news agenda for the other 2,000 or so daily newspapers in the United States in the late 1890s.

A significant body of research compiled over the years indicates that newspapers in small-town and rural America often scoffed at, condemned, and ignored the sometimes-exaggerated reports in New York’s yellow journals in the run-up to the war. Rather than take their lead from Hearst’s Journal or Pulitzer’s World, newspapers in the American heartland tended to reject their excesses and flamboyance.

Moreover, top officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of the yellow press. They certainly didn’t turn to it for guidance in policymaking. As I pointed out in Yellow Journalism, diary entries of White House officials disparaged the yellow press as a nuisance but gave it no credit as a factor in developing or shaping policy.

The content of the yellow press, I further noted, was “regarded neither as a source of insight into popular thinking in the United States nor as a useful guide in pursuing the delicate and ultimately futile negotiations with Spain” over conditions on Cuba, negotiations that preceded the declaration of war.

At most, Hearst’s newspapers were irritants to policymakers in Washington. They did not, as Lewis Gould, a political historian of the late nineteenth century has correctly observed, “create the real differences between the United States and Spain” that gave rise to war.

WJC

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