W. Joseph Campbell

The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 27, 2010 at 8:05 am

My recent post about the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate prompted a few blinkered, ahistoric observations.

Among was this comment, posted at Romenesko‘s feedback site:

“Who cares?” the comment reads. “Watergate was in the early 1970s. …  Arguing the point now about what role a paper played almost 40 years later in a presidency that a significant number of people have no recollections of? Ya gotta admire those authors willing to tackle cutting-edge topics.”

So why does it matter? Why is addressing and debunking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — still important?

Several reasons present themselves, not the least of which is the vigor that characterizes the Watergate myth: It lives on in textbooks, in classrooms, in newsrooms. It’s a very robust myth, little-restrained in its reach and infiltration.

A hint of its reach came yesterday, in an email from former master’s student of mine, who himself now teaches journalism. He described how he approaches the Watergate story:

“I usually start the class discussion by asking the students to write a sentence that begins with ‘Watergate is the story of…’

“Inevitably, several students write something like ‘Watergate is the story of two young reporters who brought down a corrupt president.’ We then spend the rest of the class period challenging that historical narrative.”

Not only is this a great pedagogic technique; the student responses suggest how ingrained the Watergate myth has become.

A further reason debunking matters is that the Watergate myth severely misinterprets the news media’s capacity to exert decisive influence.

As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, media “myths are neither trivial nor innocuous. … Notably, they tend to distort understanding about the role and function of journalism in American society, conferring on the news media far more power and influence than they necessarily wield.

“Media myths often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do and tend to extend credit where credit is not entirely due. The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a telling example.”

Indeed, the Watergate myth points unequivocally to presumed power of the news media, that they can expose corruption at the highest levels and thus make a significant and lasting difference.

As Jay Rosen, blogger and media scholar, wrote quite eloquently a few years ago, the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate stands as “the redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people.

“It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapons, journalists save the day.”

What’s more, to debunk myths is to be aligned with a fundamental objective of journalism—that of seeking to get it right. The task of debunking is to insist on a demarcation between fact and fiction, and to assert there is intrinsic value in setting the record straight.

And finally, it’s not as if journalism’s past is irrelevant. It’s unevenly taught and poorly understood, a lot of it. But it’s scarcely irrelevant. Not in the digital century, when the media landscape is being so dramatically redrawn.

WJC

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