W. Joseph Campbell

On bringing down Nixon

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 12, 2010 at 4:07 pm

My guestpost the other day at the “Political Bookworm” blog–in which I reviewed three media-driven myths explored in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong–has attracted more than a few comments, including this particularly blinkered rhetorical question:

“Do you really know anyone who believes the Washington Post brought Nixon down?”

For starters, check Investor’s Business Daily.

On the day the guestpost and the blinkered comment appeared, Investor’s Business Daily said the New York Times, in its coverage of sexual abuses by Roman Catholic priests, was “seeking the biggest prey since Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon.”

There you go: Brought down Nixon.

Gerald Ford became president on Nixon's resignation

The Investor’s Business Daily reference, of course, was to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post whose investigative reporting in the Watergate scandal is often and inaccurately said to have toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

As 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 history.

Interestingly, it lives on despite periodic efforts by principals at the Washington Post to dismiss it. (“Political Bookworm” is a Washington Post blog, it should be noted.)

The newspaper’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, 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.”

Kurtz’s observations parallel those of Stanley I. Kutler, a leading historian of Watergate, who 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 array of subpoena-wielding authorities investigating Watergate, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest–and certainly not decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

Still, the heroic-journalist myth is alive, well–and often invoked.

In large measure, that’s because the 1976 motion picture All the President’s Men–the leading movie about Watergate–depicted Woodward and Bernstein as essential to unraveling the scandal.

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

WJC

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