W. Joseph Campbell

Yet again: Watergate and the Washington Post

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 4, 2010 at 7:00 am

Bob Woodward, he of the Washington Post and Watergate fame, is to give a talk today in Hartford, Connectict about “evolution of the media, politics, health care and the economy,” according to the city’s newspaper, the Courant.

In an article about the visit, the Courant (where I once worked) indulged in one of American journalism’s most persistent and delicious myths, declaring that Woodward’s “reporting of the Watergate scandal brought down a president and reshaped the journalism industry.”

Of course, the Courant article–which is mostly a Q-and-A with Woodward–leaves it at that. It never explains how the Post‘s reporting on Watergate accomplished either feat–bringing down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency let alone reshaping the journalism industry.

As 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 scandal.

Indeed, Nixon likely would have completed his term if not for the secret recordings of many of his conversations in the Oval Office, conversations that captured his guilty role in authorizing a coverup of the Watergate scandal.

It was the Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein–that uncovered and disclosed the existence of the White House tapes, the evidence most crucial in the scandal.

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 recordings subpoenaed by the special prosecutor.

When Nixon complied, his presidency was all but over.

He resigned August 9, 1974.

As Stanley I. Kutler, a leading historian of Watergate, has written:

“The fact is, an incredible array of powerful actors all converged on Nixon at once—the FBI, prosecutors, congressional investigators, the judicial system.”

Amid this tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive, I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Principals at the Post have acknowledged as much. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher [during the Watergate period], often insisted the Post did not topple Nixon.

“‘Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,’ Graham said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

“’The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,’” she said.

Indeed.

WJC

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