W. Joseph Campbell

The hero-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 7, 2010 at 10:00 am

What I call “the dominant popular narrative” of the Watergate scandal made an appearance the other day, in a posting at the popular Huffington Post blog.

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.

Nixon resigns, 1974

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.

WJC

About these ads
  1. [...] In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 12, 2010 at 2:09 pm The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid news reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard [...]

  2. [...] a story as famous and revered in American journalism as the notion that intrepid young reporters for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard [...]

  3. [...] I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, the Post’s reporting on Watergate had only a marginal effect on the outcome of the Watergate [...]

  4. [...] a variation on the heroic-journalist meme of Watergate, which holds that the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two young [...]

  5. [...] I note in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist meme of Watergate is one of the most hardy, persistent, and delicious myths in American media [...]

  6. [...] heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–which I explore in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about [...]

  7. [...] brought down Richard Nixon is, of course, to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who covered the Watergate scandal for the Washington [...]

  8. [...] media-driven myths in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong. Among them is what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–a trope that knows few [...]

  9. [...] appears as a chapter-opening quotation in the discussion in Getting It Wrong about the heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  10. [...] It Wrong includes a chapter addressing and debunking what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–that the reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, brought [...]

  11. [...] toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. Specifically, I described how the “heroic-journalist” interpretation has become the dominant narrative of Watergate–that is, how two young, [...]

  12. [...] journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories,” I write in Getting It Wrong, [...]

  13. [...] in the years since 1974, the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal has become the heroic-journalist meme, the widely held notion that the investigative reporting of two young, tireless reporters for [...]

  14. [...] address the fallacy in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate as well as nine other prominent tales about the news [...]

  15. [...] also challenge the hero-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal, asserting in Getting It Wrong that (contrary to the dominant popular [...]

  16. [...] Investigative reporting’s ‘golden era’ lasted 25 years? Think again In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 5, 2010 at 6:43 am In a lengthy, hand-wringing look at the state of investigative reporting, the September issue of American Journalism Review indulges in the “golden age” fallacy while hinting broadly at the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. [...]

  17. [...] does stand out amid the scandal’s many tangles is the heroic-journalist version of Watergate—the endlessly appealing notion that the dogged reporting of two young, [...]

  18. [...] spent some time discussing the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington [...]

  19. [...] example is the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which holds that the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl [...]

  20. [...] discuss in Getting It Wrong factors that help account for the tenacity of the “heroic-journalist” interpretation of Watergate–the erroneous notion that the reporting of Woodward and [...]

  21. [...] myths, I have noted, can and do travel far, and well.  Take, for example, the heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  22. [...] I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is an example of such [...]

  23. [...] the other, I added, we have the heroic journalists of Watergate, Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein, whose investigative reporting brought down a corrupt [...]

  24. [...] effect,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective [...]

  25. [...] Watergate story–the dominant narrative of Watergate–really is that Woodward and Bernstein brought down a corrupt president. Now there’s no [...]

  26. [...] Carter went on CNN’s Reliable Sources the other day to plug his new book and offered up the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal. Carter (1980 [...]

  27. [...] to mythical treatment as it is–the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 and the heroic-journalist meme of the Watergate scandal both figure in Getting It [...]

  28. [...] The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a telling example. [...]

  29. [...] is not so much Karzai’s brazenness but the extravagant claim about the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, that they “amassed” evidence to “force” Nixon’s resignation. He quit [...]

  30. [...] All the President’s Men has been a significant contributor to the misleading yet dominant popular narrative of Watergate, [...]

  31. [...] that has it coming” — that’s to indulge in a media-driven myth, the beguiling heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  32. [...] of reasons offer themselves–notably that “follow the money” contributes to a simplistic interpretation of what was a sprawling scandal that sent nearly 20 of Nixon’s men to [...]

  33. [...] heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is one of those hardy media-driven myths to have produced its own [...]

  34. [...] so, as I write in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–the endlessly appealing notion that the  reporting of Woodward [...]

  35. [...] on December 29, 2010 at 11:31 am All the President’s Men, the movie that helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, was among 25 American motion pictures chosen for the 2010 National Film Registry, the Library [...]

  36. [...] Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–among them the heroic-journalist interpretation of [...]

  37. [...] that interpretation is what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–that it was the dogged investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein that [...]

  38. [...] course of history” (an exaggerated claim sometimes made about the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward). But Randall’s clearly alluding to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of February [...]

  39. [...] course of history” (an exaggerated claim sometimes made about the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward). But Randall’s clearly alluding to the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of February [...]

  40. [...] and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from [...]

  41. [...] I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate offers a convenient, accessible, easy-to-grasp version of what was a sprawling and [...]

  42. [...] I write in Getting It Wrong that “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.” [...]

  43. [...] unabashedly advances what I call “the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate” — the endlessly appealing notion that it Woodward and Bernstein’s [...]

  44. [...] heroic-journalist meme, I note, offers “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for [...]

  45. [...] remarks reflect an endorsement of I call the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate — the simplified and misleading interpretation that the reporting of  Post reporters Bob [...]

  46. [...] I’ve noted, not even the Post endorses that superficial and misleading reading of Watergate history. (Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, has said for [...]

  47. [...] broadly, the film promotes what I call the “heroic-journalist” interpretation” of [...]

  48. [...] It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–among them the heroic-journalist interpretation [...]

  49. [...] The hero-journalist myth of Watergate [...]

  50. [...] so goes the central myth of Watergate — that of the heroic-journalist. The heroic-journalist meme holds that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes and misdeeds of [...]

  51. [...] Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his brilliant 1974 essay, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was highly derivative, sustained by leaks from federal investigations [...]

  52. [...] a bit cloying, about the recent spasm of adulation of Bob Woodward, he of the Washington Post and Watergate fame. All the President's [...]

  53. [...] any other single factor, the movie All the President’s Men propelled the media myth of the heroic journalist — the beguiling notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative reporting of the [...]

  54. [...] mediacentric version of Watergate — or what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation — allows audiences to sidestep the scandal’s off-putting complexity and [...]

  55. [...] Woodward, he of Watergate fame, says Donald Trump’s persistent questioning about President Barack Obama’s place [...]

  56. [...] to remember the Woodward-Bernstein-mediacentric interpretation of Watergate? Why has it become the dominant narrative of the scandal? That it is shorn of complexity and easy to grasp is one [...]

  57. [...] That’s a revealing point that goes to the heart of what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: Disclosures by “Deep Throat” didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency; nor did the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein. [...]

  58. [...] other topics, Kustra and I discussed the hero-journalist myth of Watergate (the notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the [...]

  59. [...] effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective [...]

  60. [...] The hero-journalist myth of Watergate [...]

  61. [...] bringing down Nixon wasn’t a consequence of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, hoary media myth [...]

  62. [...] the media myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid reporters for the Washington Post broke or exposed [...]

  63. [...] even the Post buys into that simplistic and media-centric interpretation. As Michael Getler, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman correctly noted in [...]

  64. [...] was toppled not by heroic journalists who followed a money trail, but by irrefutable evidence captured on audiotapes that he had ordered [...]

  65. [...] passing of time is making the heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate even more [...]

  66. [...] is the dominant narrative of Watergate,” I pointed out, adding that’s also a very simplistic explanation for [...]

  67. [...] I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — the notion that Bernstein and Woodward’s dogged reporting forced Nixon [...]

  68. [...] note in Getting It Wrong that the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — “the endlessly appealing notion that the dogged reporting of two young, [...]

  69. [...] heroic-journalist narrative has it that Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was brought down through the reporting of Bob [...]

  70. [...] I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist myth is the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down the corrupt presidency of [...]

  71. [...] matters because the mystery of “Deep Throat” was central to establishing the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the enduring if misleading notion that Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged reporting, [...]

  72. [...] also a media-driven myth — the heroic-journalist myth, as I call it in my 2010 book, Getting It [...]

  73. [...] it’s a mythical, media-centric interpretation, a trope that not even the Post [...]

  74. [...] hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that the dogged investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob [...]

  75. [...] Wall Street Journal makes that link in an article today while credulously invoking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in [...]

  76. […] most interests Media Myth Alert, though, was the mayor’s rubbing shoulders with the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the trope that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting was decisive to the scandal’s […]

  77. […] 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 […]

  78. […] that Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon’s presidency, no embrace of what I call the hero-journalist myth of […]

  79. […] heroic-journalist trope is a simplified version of the scandal that cuts through complexities and intricacies to make […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,749 other followers

%d bloggers like this: