W. Joseph Campbell

A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth

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 Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is a trope that knows few bounds.

It’s one of the favorite stories American journalism tells about itself, and it turns up often, even in such unexpected places as online celebrity gossip sites.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The well-known gossip columnist Liz Smith casually invoked the myth the other day, in an item at wowowow.com about Carl Bernstein. He is the former Washington Post reporter who figured prominently in the newspaper’s coverage of the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972-73.

Smith referred to Bernstein as the “Watergate partner of Bob Woodward whose work for the Washington Post brought down the Nixon presidency.”

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a hardy one: It lives on in textbooks, it’s taught in schools, and it rattles around in newsrooms.

It’s quite unrestrained in its reach, and over time has become the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal.

But as I write in my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, Getting It Wrong, it’s also “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.”

As “earnest and revealing as their reporting was,” I further write, “Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money” to the burglars who broke into the national headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and Bernstein–learned about, and disclosed the existence of, the White House tape recordings that captured Nixon’s complicity in the coverup. The special federal prosecutors on Watergate 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.

Those were pivotal events that led to Nixon’s resignation.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog postings, it’s intriguing that the Post from time to time has tried to make clear its reporting was not decisive to Nixon’s resignation.

For example, in 2005, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column:

“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.”

This is not to say the Post’s Watergate reporting was without distinction.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, as “the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the burglary. The Post was the first news organization to establish a connection between the burglars and the White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign funds to reelect Nixon were used to fund the break-in, the first to implicate former Attorney General John Mitchell in the scandal….”

Those reports were published in the four months following the Watergate break-in.

Meanwhile, Nixon was on his way to reelection in a forty-nine state landslide.

WJC

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  1. [...] Neither Felt’s “leaked information,” nor the Washington Post’s reporting, brought down Nixon. [...]

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

  3. [...] heard during conference presentations was what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–the notion that the reporting of two young reporters for the Washington Post brought down [...]

  4. [...] It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, has been “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate, to give it dramatic power, and sustain it in the collective [...]

  5. [...] The Washington Post’s investigative reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher during the [...]

  6. [...] Indeed, this myth is a trope that knows few bounds. [...]

  7. [...] heroic-journalist meme also popped up in an item posted the other day at VignaClaraBlog, an online local news site in [...]

  8. [...] I’ve noted in previous posts at MediaMythAlert, the notion that the reporters brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency is a [...]

  9. [...] As I’ve noted several times at MediaMythAlert, the notion that Woodward, Bernstein, and the Washington Post “brought down” Nixon is a media-driven myth, a trope that knows few bounds. [...]

  10. [...] I address, and debunk, 10 prominent 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 bounds. [...]

  11. [...] the New York Times to spike a story about the pending U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba, and the heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  12. [...] interpretation of Watergate is that the investigative reporting of the Washington Post was what brought down Nixon. A related claim is that if its reporting didn’t exactly take Nixon down, the Post [...]

  13. [...] Watergate: The Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That they did is a trope that knows few bounds. [...]

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  16. [...] for complex historical events. That factor certainly helps explains the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate and the “Cronkite Moment.” It is far easier to characterize the news media [...]

  17. [...] Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush [...]

  18. [...] Specifically, I described how the “heroic-journalist” interpretation has become the dominant narrative of Watergate–that is, how two young, intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought Nixon [...]

  19. [...] Moment, Debunking, Media myths on July 10, 2010 at 9:28 am Media-driven myths not only can be remarkably hardy; they often find use and application in contexts well beyond their original incarnation. Cronkite [...]

  20. [...] note in Getting It Wrong, my new book about prominent media-driven myths, that the dominant popular narrative of Watergate has long been the notion that dogged investigative reporting of two Washington Post journalists, [...]

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  22. [...] subsequently zeroed in on the myths of Watergate, Murrow-McCarthy, the Cronkite Moment, and the War of the Worlds radio [...]

  23. [...] heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is, in a way, a representation of the “telescopic fallacy.” That [...]

  24. [...] Bob Woodward‘s new book, Obama’s Wars, have inevitably stirred fresh retellings of the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, in which Woodward figures prominently. Nixon resigns, [...]

  25. [...] because the heroic-journalist interpretation is such an unambiguous assertion of the media’s presumed power, it tends to travel [...]

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  30. [...] movie version helped cement the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate by leaving the inescapable but erroneous impression that Woodward and Bernstein were [...]

  31. [...] discussed the heroic-journalist myth that has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal, which ended Richard Nixon’s [...]

  32. [...] think that these stories, though, many of them–the Murrow story, the Cronkite story, Watergate, Hearst–are just too good to resist … and they [have] become ingrained as part of the [...]

  33. [...] the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men I think really helped solidify the notion that those two guys were [...]

  34. [...] heroic-journalist meme, which has become the scandal’s dominant popular narrative, maintains Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in their dogged coverage, [...]

  35. [...] famous “furnish the war” vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst. And, of course, the heroic-journalist myth, according to which the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard [...]

  36. [...] commentary refers to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who reported on Watergate for the Washington Post, and asserts that Wikileaks disclosures “add to the well-documented [...]

  37. [...] that guessing game is an important reason why the dominant popular narrative about Watergate is the notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard [...]

  38. [...] in part to Hollywood, the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate has become the most familiar and readily accessible explanation about why Nixon left office in [...]

  39. [...] movie All the President’s Men is a central reason the heroic-journalist trope lives [...]

  40. [...] cables, commentators seeking a point of reference sometimes have turned to what I call the heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  41. [...] heroic-journalist myth has it that the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post [...]

  42. [...] heroic-journalist interpretation is, I note, “a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding [...]

  43. [...] the fall of Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. The movie promotes the misleading yet beguiling heroic-journalist interpretation of [...]

  44. [...] heroic-journalist meme has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting about the Watergate scandal [...]

  45. [...] Their contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal are minimized, and even denigrated, in the cinematic treatment of  All the President’s Men, which came out in 1976 and effectively promoted, and solidified, the heroic-journalist myth. [...]

  46. [...] completed by research assistant Jeremiah N. Patterson, reviews the media myths related to the Watergate scandal, the purported Cronkite Moment, and the aftermath of Hurricane [...]

  47. [...] topics–what I call the heroic-journalist myth and the subsidiary or spinoff myth of Watergate–are addressed and debunked in my latest book, [...]

  48. [...] to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to [...]

  49. [...] essentially is the “heroic-journalist” interpretation of Watergate — a reductive and misleading trope to which I devote a [...]

  50. [...] the movie version of All the President’s Men celebrated and helped firm up what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. The film’s inescapable but erroneous conclusion is that Woodward and Bernstein [...]

  51. [...] were just beginning to heal. The book and, especially, the movie served to promote what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — the endlessly appealing notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting [...]

  52. [...] embraced and solidified the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation of [...]

  53. [...] argue otherwise it did is to indulge in the beguiling “heroic-journalist myth,”  which, as I write in my latest book,  Getting It Wrong, has become “the most [...]

  54. [...] an interpretation of Watergate that few serious historians embrace. [...]

  55. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

  56. [...] heroic-journalist meme is a trope that knows few bounds. It is the most familiar storyline of Watergate — the mediacentric version that Woodward and [...]

  57. [...] A trope that knows few bonds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

  58. [...] The heroic-journalist meme has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting about the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency (Nixon resigned in 1974, in the face of certain impeachment and conviction for his role in seeking to coverup the Watergate scandal). [...]

  59. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth of Watergate [...]

  60. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

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

  63. [...] book that came out last year, All the President’s Men effectively sealed the heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  64. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth of Watergate [...]

  65. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

  66. [...] such as those about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” or the heroic journalists who exposed Watergate make newsgathering seem vital, central, and essential. Those and other tales [...]

  67. [...] contemporary journalists who confront sustained and sweeping upheaval in their field, the mediacentric myth of Watergate is comforting,  [...]

  68. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth of Watergate [...]

  69. [...] heroic-journalist interpretation serves to diminish and ignore the far more powerful forces that unraveled the scandal and forced [...]

  70. [...] it’s the film All the President’s Men that’s largely responsible for the heroic-journalist trope that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon and saved the [...]

  71. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

  72. [...] conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces. But it’s far easier to focus on two heroic journalists, says Campbell, than it is to grapple with the complexities of the Watergate [...]

  73. [...] the Post-Watergate trope, of course, is a powerful media-driven [...]

  74. [...] More important, the reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein assuredly did not “take down” Nixon’s presidency. [...]

  75. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist interpretation of Watergate [...]

  76. [...] and Bernstein to the exclusion” of the forces and factors that were truly decisive in bringing down Nixon’s corrupt [...]

  77. [...] point out that the heroic-journalist trope “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from [...]

  78. [...] the Times effectively sidled up to the beguiling “heroic-journalist myth,”  which, as I write in my latest book,  Getting It Wrong, has become “the most familiar [...]

  79. [...] A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

  80. [...] In response to a question I posed afterward, Kutler said “self-promotion” by Woodward and Bernstein — notably their book about their Watergate reporting — explains the tenacity of what I call the heroic-journalist narrative. [...]

  81. [...] so, in the run-up to the scandal’s 40th anniversary in 2012, the Watergate myth — the heroic-journalist trope — is sure to emerge often and [...]

  82. [...] 2 hours and 16 minutes” — also was central in promoting and solidifying the heroic-journalist myth of [...]

  83. [...] them are the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the battlefield derring-do [...]

  84. [...] A trope that knows few bonds: The hero-journalist myth [...]

  85. [...] I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter on what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that [...]

  86. [...] in myths such as the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate also offers a subtle way of investing the Press Club award with even greater [...]

  87. [...] powerful and related factors have propelled and solidified the heroic-journalist trope in the popular [...]

  88. [...] alluring and heroic were the depictions of Woodward and Bernstein as they, ahem, toppled a corrupt president that young [...]

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

  90. [...] Unless, that is, you embrace the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting exposed the crimes that forced [...]

  91. [...] invoked Watergate’s hero-journalist trope in discussing the sequester during his program yesterday, stating [...]

  92. [...] I call the hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting brought down Nixon — [...]

  93. [...] thing about the media myth of Watergate: The notion that the Washington Post’s dogged reporting toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt [...]

  94. […] latest to invoke what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate was the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, Carol Rose, who declared in […]

  95. […] 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 […]

  96. […] heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the film adaptation of All the […]

  97. […] too often, the heroic-journalist trope proves too delicious and too handy to be […]

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