W. Joseph Campbell

‘Revealing the scandal of Watergate’

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 22, 2010 at 3:58 pm

I blogged the other day about the polyglot nature of enduring media-driven myths, notably the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which holds that two Washington Post reporters exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

“It’s a sure sign of tenacity and hardiness when media-driven myths cross linguistic barriers to become embedded in other languages,” I wrote.

Confirmation of that observation is offered today in a post at the French-language Swiss online site, Les Quotidiennes, which declared:

“In the ’70s, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two journalists for the Washington Post, inspired entire generations by revealing the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Nixon.”

Bernstein and Woodward’s Watergate reporting won the Public Service Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973. They did fine work.

But it can’t really be said that they “revealed” or disclosed the Watergate scandal. Credit for that accomplishment goes largely to federal investigative agencies, bipartisan congressional panels, federal prosecutors and judges, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Edward Jay Epstein persuasively argued this point in his  fine essay in 1976 about Watergate and the news media. He wrote that “the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the [federal] grand jury, and the Congressional committees … unearthed and developed all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate.”

Epstein noted that Bernstein and Woodward, in All the President’s Men, their book about their Watergate reporting, “systematically ignored or minimized” the work of those agencies and institutions.

“Instead,” Epstein wrote, “they simply focus[ed] on those parts of the prosecutors’ case, the grand-jury investigation, and the FBI reports that were leaked to them.”

I address the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, noting that it is “the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

“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.”

I add:

“But 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. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office,” such as the subpoena-wielding federal authorities.

I further note in Getting It Wrong that the media scholar Jay Rosen has referred to the heroic-journalist construct as “the redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapons, journalists save the day.”

It’s an endlessly appealing meme: easy to grasp, and not difficult to translate.

WJC

Jay Rosen, a media scholar, has called the heroic-journalist construct “the redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapons, journalists save the day.”[i]


[i] Jay Rosen, “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion,” PressThink Web log (5 June 2005), posted at: http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2005/06/05/wtrg_js.html. Rosen also wrote: “When the press took over the legend of Watergate, the main characters were no longer the bad guys like Richard Nixon [and his corrupt aides] John Mitchell, Bob Haldeman, John Erlichman, or Chuck Colson, all of whom broke the law and abused state power. The narrative got turned around. Watergate became a story about heroism at the Washington Post. The protagonists were Woodward and Bernstein ….”

About these ads
  1. […] Watergate scandal, which culminated in 1974 with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It is often said that the Watergate reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein […]

  2. […] improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual–travel quite well, crossing linguistic barriers with frequency and ease. Hearst's New York Evening Journal, […]

  3. […] Watergate scandal was not the upshot of “bad blood” between the Nixon and the Post, even though neither […]

  4. […] was uttered in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men by the character who played “Deep Throat.” The movie, which was released in 1976, was an adaptation of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s […]

  5. […] the President’s Men solidified the notion that young, diligent reporters for the Washington Post brought down President Richard Nixon. That myth of Watergate may be stronger than ever, given that All the […]

  6. […] the President’s Men, the most-seen movie about the Watergate scandal, may be released on Blu-ray early next year, according to a post yesterday at a blog […]

  7. […] reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal — often seek to “ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news […]

  8. […] into the script of All the President’s Men, the 1976 motion picture that dramatized the Watergate reporting of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl […]

  9. […] Post have attempted over the years to distance the newspaper from the popular narrative that its reporting forced Nixon to […]

  10. […] so goes the central myth of Watergate — that of the heroic-journalist. The heroic-journalist meme holds that Woodward and Bernstein […]

  11. […] media myth of Watergate — the notion that intrepid reporters for the Washington Post broke or exposed the scandal and brought about Nixon’s resignation — Kustra […]

  12. […] And he delivered his “follow the money” line with such steely assurance that it did seem to offer a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal. […]

  13. […] the line with such assurance that it really did seem to offer a way through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal. […]

  14. […] meme — the appealing if misleading notion that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought Nixon […]

  15. […] was referring to the supposed effects of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward of the Washington […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,793 other followers

%d bloggers like this: