W. Joseph Campbell

Media myths and their spinoffs: The case of Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Prominent media-driven myths, the subject of my new book, Getting It Wrong, can be self-sustaining: That is, they can and do give rise to subsidiary media myths.

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a notable example of this tendency. It has given rise to particularly tenacious, though appealing, subsidiary myth.

The  heroic-journalist myth has it that the intrepid investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Nixon resigns, 1974

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

“The heroic-journalist has become 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.”

Except that it’s exaggerated.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation” of Watergate, I write in Getting It Wrong, “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.” Those forces were typically subpoena-wielding and including federal prosecutors, the FBI, bipartisan Congressional committees, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the end, the contributions of the Washington Post to the scandal’s outcome were modest, and certainly not decisive. Over the years, principals at the Post have emphasized as much. For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, 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 in Washington marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” she said.

In earthier terms, Woodward has concurred, telling American Journalism Review in 2004:

“To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

Nonetheless, the heroic-journalist myth lives on. It’s a robust myth, little-restrained in its reach and infiltration, and highly resistant to debunking. It is retold in textbooks, in classrooms, in newsrooms.

And it has spun off a durable subsidiary myth, one that revolves around the hoopla associated with Woodward and Bernstein: Their book about their reporting, All the President’s Men, was a best-seller. Its cinematic version was a box office success and, quite likely, is the most-viewed film ever about Watergate.

The book and the movie made journalism seem sexy, and caused enrollments at college and university journalism programs to soar.

Supposedly.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, “there is no evidence to support the notion that enrollments in journalism programs surged because of Woodward, Bernstein … and All the President’s Men. The subsidiary myth lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

A study financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 reported that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Seven years earlier, Maxwell E. McCombs reported in the Gannett Center Journal that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate scandal broke in 1972.

McCombs, a veteran mass communication scholar, further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

Despite such solid scholarly research, the subsidiary myth lives on.

It’s a neat and tidy tale, the notion that the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein were a profound stimulus to enrollments in collegiate journalism programs. Like many other media myths, it’s a tale almost too good not to be true.

WJC

A version of this post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

About these ads
  1. [...] responded by saying some of the myth-such as those of Watergate and the War of the Worlds–are so appealing, delicious, and ingrained that they may never be [...]

  2. [...] Media myths and their spinoffs: The case of Watergate [...]

  3. [...] In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 20, 2010 at 7:08 pm Among the myths and misunderstandings associated with the sprawling scandal that was Watergate is the notion that the Washington Post [...]

  4. [...] subsidiary or spinoff myth reemerged yesterday in a commentary in Boston Globe, which [...]

  5. [...] Media myths and their spinoffs: The case of Watergate [...]

  6. [...] spent some time discussing the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate–that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post brought [...]

  7. [...] NB: Do you have students who come in and say, “I saw Good Night and Good Luck and it inspired me to pursue a career in journalism”? [...]

  8. [...] The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is one of those hardy media-driven myths to have produced its own spinoff or subsidiary myth. [...]

  9. [...] scholarly research has shown that Woodward, Bernstein, and All the President’s Men did not cause enrollments to climb at [...]

  10. [...] topics–what I call the heroic-journalist myth and the subsidiary or spinoff myth of Watergate–are addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It [...]

  11. [...] Myth Alert, “follow the money” is pithy, punchy, and easily remembered; like many other media myths, it is readily [...]

  12. [...] was incorrect about the Watergate effect on journalism schools: The surge in enrollments was well underway before Watergate, before Woodward and Bernstein became [...]

  13. [...] Media myths and their spinoffs: The case of Watergate [...]

  14. [...] them are the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the battlefield derring-do misattributed [...]

  15. [...] of journalism students, making reporters hot for the first time in history… except that never happened. There was a very slight gain, but the doubling had already taken [...]

  16. [...] of journalism students, making reporters hot for the first time in history… except that never happened. There was a very slight gain, but the doubling had already taken [...]

  17. [...] of journalism students, making reporters hot for the first time in history… except that never happened. There was a very slight gain, but the doubling had already taken [...]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,695 other followers

%d bloggers like this: