W. Joseph Campbell

If not for the Post’s digging …

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Then the Watergate scandal might never have come to light.

Right.

That, in any case, is a variation on the heroic-journalist meme of Watergate, which holds that the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two young reporters for the Washington Post, brought down Richard Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

It’s a claim too sweeping for many to embrace. As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is a media-driven myth–one that even officials at the Post tend to dismiss.

The variation on the heroic-journalist meme holds that the Post‘s persistent reporting during the summer and early fall of 1972–in the early weeks and months of the scandal–helped keep Watergate from fading completely from public view.

The variation theme was invoked yesterday in a column in the New Britain Herald in Connecticut.

The writer says about Watergate and Nixon’s eventual resignation:

“Sure, a federal judge and the members of Congress had something to do with it — Lowell Weicker made his name nationally at the [Senate] Watergate hearings. But without Woodward and Bernstein digging and writing in the Washington Post, it could all have been pushed under the rug.”

Alas, the writer offers no evidence for his speculative conclusion.

Even so, it’s not an uncommon interpretation.

Howard Simons, the Post‘s managing editor during the Watergate period, once said:

“For months we were out there alone on this story. What scared me was that the normal herd instincts of Washington journalism didn’t seem to be operating. … It was months of loneliness.”

Such characterizations are not entirely accurate, however. As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The Post may well have led other newspapers on the Watergate story—principally was because Watergate at first was a local story, based in Washington, D.C. But rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972,” while Nixon’s reelection campaign gathered momentum.

In his classic essay on journalism and Watergate, Edward Jay Epstein noted that the Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in calling attention to the scandal.

Nixon’s Democratic challenger for the presidency, George McGovern, often invoked Watergate in campaign appearances during the summer and fall of 1972. At one point, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate scandal, which stemmed from a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

McGovern also termed the break-in “the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler.”

So in its reporting on the emergent scandal, the Post in fact was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.

Woodward and Bernstein were very much not alone in their digging. And the number of entities and institutions that were digging, even in the early days of the scandal, guaranteed that Watergate could not be “pushed under the rug.”

WJC

<!–[if !mso]> Edward Jay Epstein noted in his classic essay disputing the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate that the Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress,[i] and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in calling attention to the scandal. Within a few days of the Watergate break-in, moreover, the Democratic National Committee filed a civil lawsuit against the Committee for the Reelection of the President, which ultimately compelled statements under oath. And Nixon’s Democratic challenger for the presidency, George McGovern, repeatedly invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances in the summer and fall of 1972. At one point, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate burglary. McGovern also termed the break-in “the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler.”[ii] In its reporting on the emergent scandal in the summer and fall of 1972, the Post in fact was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.[iii] The Post, that is, was very much not alone.


[i] See Bernard Gwertzman, “G.A.O. Report Asks Justice Inquiry Into G.O.P. Funds,” New York Times (27 August 1972): 1.

[ii] See James M. Naughton, “McGovern Bars Briefings By Kissinger as Unhelpful,” New York Times (16 August 1972): 1, 20.

[iii] Edward Jay Epstein, Between Fact and Fiction: The Problem of Journalism (New York: VintageBooks, 1975), 26. See also, Martin Schram, “Watergate in media legend,” Journal of Commerce (19 June 1997): 6A. Schram wrote: “Even in the early days [of the Watergate scandal], the Post was not always the Lone Ranger we now remember.

About these ads
  1. [...] what I call the heroic-journalist myth, and it’s addressed, and debunked, in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about [...]

  2. [...] “The movie’s a great movie,” I added. “But it helped to solidify the notion that the Post, the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein were at the center, were at the heart, of uncovering the scandal.” [...]

  3. [...] with a detailed look at what I called a “uniquely Washington historical event,” the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. Specifically, I described how the [...]

  4. [...] and Bernstein’s award-winning reporting on Watergate was published in summer and fall 1972, as the scandal slowly unfolded during the weeks and months [...]

  5. [...] Investigative reporting’s ‘golden era’ lasted 25 years? Think again [...]

  6. [...] If not for the Post’s digging … [...]

  7. [...] narrative of Watergate, that the reporting of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that forced Nixon’s resignation. The movie focuses on the reporters and their work, ignoring [...]

  8. [...] David vs. Goliath storyline in which the courageous reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of the Nixon [...]

  9. [...] I have no serious quarrel with the LOC’s selection. All the President’s Men is an entertaining and imaginative film, adapted from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book by the same title about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post. [...]

  10. [...] 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 [...]

  11. [...] answer to the question of who or what brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington [...]

  12. [...] the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI. The effect was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective [...]

  13. [...] was actor Hal Holbrook’s line, spoken in All the President’s Men, the [...]

  14. [...] Watergate reporting by the Post did not expose the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in or the payment of hush money to the burglars, either. [...]

  15. [...] 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 [...]

  16. [...] Hal Holbrook, who turned in a marvelous performance as the “Deep Throat” source in All the President’s Men, the [...]

  17. [...] I note in Getting It Wrong, it places “Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the [...]

  18. [...] subsequent Watergate reporting, moreover, the Post exposed  neither the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in, nor the [...]

  19. [...] a newspaper that reputedly brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency with its relentless digging into the Watergate [...]

  20. [...] If not for the Post’s digging … [...]

  21. [...] Woodward and his reporting colleague Carl Bernstein wrote in the book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, the principal role of “Deep Throat” was to “confirm [...]

  22. [...] of the book by the same title that Woodward and Post colleague Carl Bernstein wrote about their Watergate reporting. “Follow the money” was uttered by Hal Holbrook, the actor who turned in an outstanding [...]

  23. [...] narrative has it that Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was brought down through the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington [...]

  24. [...] “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial published in the Post  before 1981 — which was years after Nixon quit the presidency in [...]

  25. [...] years, the dominant narrative of Watergate has been that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post [...]

  26. [...] it can’t be said the Post “uncovered” the Watergate [...]

  27. [...] it has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate, the heroic-journalist meme has obscured the role of forces far more consequential than the Post in uncovering America’s [...]

  28. [...] to the “Cronkite Moment,” the 45th anniversary of which falls tomorrow, and to the hero-journalist myth that the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate scandal brought down Richard [...]

  29. [...] at it again yesterday, offering up the dubious interpretation that Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting “destroyed the Nixon [...]

  30. [...] it extends to journalists the unmerited status of having been heroic central actors in exposing the crimes of [...]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,629 other followers

%d bloggers like this: