W. Joseph Campbell

Woodward’s reporting ‘changed course of American history’?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 16, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Bob Woodward’s “investigative reporting of Watergate changed the course of American history.”

So asserted a column in yesterday’s St. Petersburg Times.

Woodward (Library of Congress)

The author didn’t elaborate, or offer supporting evidence for such an exuberant claim. Presumably, he meant that reporting by Woodward and his Washington Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

That, of course, is among the most appealing and enduring of the many media-driven myths–stories about and or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, prove apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

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.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, even Washington Post officials over the years have scoffed at such claims.

Notable among them was Katherine Graham, the publisher during the Watergate period.

“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 insisted.

Indeed, I write in Getting It Wrong, “Nixon’s fall was the consequence of his criminal conduct, which was exposed in the convergence of many forces, newspaper reporting being among the least decisive.”

Still, the heroic-journalist myth endures.

An important reason why Woodward and Bernstein are given so much credit is the need for heroes in a business that is much derided and little trusted. As I note in Getting It Wrong, which will be out next month, “media myths can be self-flattering, offering heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

I further write:

“Similarly, media myths invite indulgence in the ‘golden age fallacy,’ the flawed but enticing belief that there really was a time when journalism and its practitioners were respected and inspiring—the time, say, of Murrow or Cronkite, or Woodward and Bernstein.”

Such misplaced nostalgia has helped embed these myths firmly and decisively in media history.

WJC

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