The pre-publication publicity and reviews about Bob Woodward‘s new book, Obama’s Wars, have inevitably stirred fresh retellings of the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, in which Woodward figures prominently.
“In 1974,” Cafferty wrote, “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon with their reporting on Watergate.”
And demonstrating anew that media-driven myths can travel far and well, the Daily Telegraph in London declared the other day in a profile of Woodward that his collaboration with Bernstein brought them “global fame” for “breaking the Watergate scandal and forcing Richard Nixon’s resignation in the early 1970s.”
The venerable BBC, in its profile, said of Woodward:
“The veteran journalist was at the heart of the scandal that rocked the White House and brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974.
“Along with Carl Bernstein, his colleague at the Washington Post, Woodward was instrumental in uncovering a series of abuses of power that reached the highest level of the administration.”
Among the many elements of the myth’s debunking, I note that principals at the Washington Post have sought periodically over the years to dismiss the notion the newspaper was central to Nixon’s fall.
Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period and beyond, said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the foiled burglary at Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.:
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
And Woodward, himself, has concurred, albeit in earthier terms. “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he said in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review.
Complexity-avoidance, I write in Getting It Wrong, also helps explain the tenacity of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate. Like many media myths, the heroic-journalist meme minimizes the intricacy of historical events in favor of simplistic and misleading interpretations.
In the case of Watergate, it is far easier to focus on the purported exploits of Woodward and Bernstein than it is to try to grapple with the intricacies and complexities of what was a sprawling scandal.
Far more significant and decisive to Watergate’s outcome were the contributions of federal prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court. They were the forces in that succeeded in identifying Nixon’s criminal attempt to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal–the misconduct that led to his resignation.
Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, and bipartisan congressional panels, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive.”
I further write:
“This is not to say the Post’s reporting on Watergate was without distinction.” Indeed, the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973, for its reporting about the scandal in the summer and fall of 1972–during the four months following the foiled breakin at the Watergate.
But by late October 1972, the Post’s investigation into Watergate had run “out of gas,” as Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, later acknowledged.
As earnest as their reporting was, “Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars,” I note in Getting It Wrong.
Nor did they disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system that proved so critical to Nixon’s fate.
Nixon, I write, “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.”
Now that’s what “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- Investigative reporting’s ‘golden era’ lasted 25 years? Think again
- On media myths and the ‘golden age’ fallacy
- Washington Post ‘wrecked’ Nixon’s life? Sure it did
- If not for the Post’s digging …
- Haig, Deep Throat, and the Watergate myth
- ‘Deep Throat’ outed self, five years ago today
- Media myths, the ‘junk food of journalism’