The occasion was a withering attack on James O’Keefe, the activist-undercover journalist arrested last month posing as a telephone repairman at the New Orleans offices of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.
The Huffington Post item unfavorably compared O’Keefe to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who reported most prominently on the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post in the early 1970s. The item declared:
“Woodward and Bernstein brought down a president and they didn’t have to break into anyone’s office.”
Neither did O’Keefe. But it is striking how routinely and off-handedly Woodward and Bernstein are credited with such an accomplishment, especially when the record of Watergate shows that the Post‘s reporting had a marginal effect on forcing Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency.
Also striking is how the Post has acknowledged as much from time to time over the years.
Howard Kurtz, the newspaper’s media reporter, wrote in 2005, for example:
“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [former White House lawyer] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”
Nixon likely would have completed his term if not for the recordings of his conversations in the Oval Office, conversations that captured his guilty role in authorizing a coverup of the Watergate scandal.
The Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and Bernstein–uncovered the existence of the White House tapes. The special federal prosecutors on Watergate (one of whom Nixon ordered fired) pressed for the release of the tapes. And the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes subpoenaed by the special prosecutor.
“The fact is, an incredible array of powerful actors all converged on Nixon at once—the FBI, prosecutors, congressional investigators, the judicial system,” a leading historian of Watergate, Stanley I. Kutler, has written.
Even so, the heroic-journalist myth long ago became the most familiar storyline, the dominant narrative of Watergate.
That’s partly because few Americans are familiar with the intricacies of the epic scandal, one that sent to jail nearly 20 men who were associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.
The myth of the heroic-journalist, I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, thus serves as ready short-hand “for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”
I also note in Getting It Wrong:
“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”
But it is a misleading interpretation, one that minimizes the more powerful and decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and ended Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the summer of 1974.