W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo ‘didn’t like Nixon’–and that’s how ‘we got Watergate’? Huh?

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 9, 2010 at 7:06 am

Wolff

Michael Wolff, the media critic and biographer of Rupert Murdoch, has been sharply criticized for his column this week that presented a strange, Machiavellian assessment of the New York Times magazine article about how Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid News of the World apparently hacked the voicemail of Britain’s royals, and many others.

Murdoch

Wolff noted the Times is “locked in a ferocious battle with Murdoch. He’s trying to use the Wall Street Journal to undermine the Times—to lessen it as a competitor or, even, weaken it so much that he can buy it.”

OK, so far.

But Wolff also claimed that the article about the News of the World signaled that the Times “is striking back” at Murdoch, albeit “a little oddly (the Times can be brutal, but it likes to pretend it is much less brutal than it can be). Instead of using the paper to make its attack, it’s using the magazine—this is a clear choice for the Times.”

And in a passage holding relevance and particular interest to Media Myth Alert, Wolff (who surely ought to know better) wrote:

“Still, just because you have ulterior motives (and some worry and guilt about your motives), doesn’t mean the story won’t stick. The Washington Post didn’t like Nixon—and because of that bad blood we got Watergate.”

That’s how “we got Watergate”?

That’s just absurd.

The Watergate scandal was not the upshot of “bad blood” between the Nixon and the Post, even though neither was particularly fond of the other.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The scandal unfolded, deepened, and ultimately claimed Richard Nixon’s presidency because of broad criminal misconduct by Nixon, his close associates, some cabinet officers, as well as senior officials of his 1972 reelection campaign.

Likewise absurd is asserting that the Post‘s investigative reporting on Watergate was decisive in Nixon’s fall.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths, to explain Watergate as a case of media revelation “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

It is an interpretation, I write, that minimizes and obscures “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office”–notably, special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Even then, I argue, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

It’s understandable to seek to distill Watergate, as Wolff did, to something simple, manageable.

After all, the complexity of Watergate–the multiple lines of inquiry that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of an exceptional constitutional crisis—”are not routinely recalled these days,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “The epic scandal has grown so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.”

I also write:

“What does stand out amid the scandal’s many tangles is the heroic-journalist version of Watergate—the endlessly appealing notion that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency.”

In the years since Nixon resigned in 1974, the heroic-journalist meme has become embedded and solidified as the dominant narrative of Watergate–as a short-hand way of vaguely understanding the scandal and its outcome while sidestepping its forbidding complexity.

But it is an interpretation that rests upon a serious misreading of the historical record.

WJC

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