W. Joseph Campbell

Didn’t: A Watergate primer

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm

“Didn’t” can be a fairly effective way of understanding contributions of the Washington Post in the Watergate scandal, to which I devote a chapter in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn’t bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. Even principals of the Post have dismissed that notion, as note in Getting It Wrong.

They didn’t break open the cover-up that Nixon and his close aides plotted in June 1972, soon after the break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex.

And they certainly didn’t expose the Watergate burglary, the scandal’s signal crime.

“Didn’t” as a way to consider Watergate occurred to me in reading an article posted online yesterday by the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram and Gazette; the article mistakenly asserted that Woodward “exposed the 1972 Watergate break-in with colleague Carl Bernstein.”

The Watergate break-in was thwarted by Washington, D.C., police and the story began circulating within hours.

In fact, the names of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t appear in the byline of the story the Post published June 18, 1972, about the foiled break-in. Woodward and Bernstein were listed among the eight reporters who contributed the report, which carried the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter for the Post.

“Didn’t” also characterizes another element of Watergate and the Post.

The secret, high-level source called “Deep Throat,” to whom Woodward periodically turned as the scandal unfolded, didn’t advise him to “follow the money”– or, in other words, to scrutinize the contributions to Nixon’s reelection campaign as a roadmap for understanding the scandal.

“Follow the money” is one of the most memorable phrases of Watergate-era American journalism, and it was uttered by the “Deep Throat” character in the cinema version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men.

But the “follow the money” didn’t appear in All the President’s Men, the book.

According to an item posted today at the online site of National Public Radio, the phrase was “kind of made up for the movie.”

The item discussed the variety of research conducted over the years by NPR’s research librarian, Kee Malesky. It noted that NPR reporters “have asked Malesky to look up some fairly obscure, though fascinating pieces of information.”

Malesky, who discusses her research in a new book titled All Facts Considered, recalled that Daniel Schorr once asked her “to find the phrase ‘follow the money’ in the book All The President’s Men.

She was quoted as saying that “because my policy was to go to any length to get Dan Schorr what he needed, I went through the book page by page, and that phrase does not appear there.

“And then in talking to Bob Woodward and the screenwriter, William Goldman, Dan discovered that [the phrase is] actually kind of made up for the movie.”

It’s a great anecdote, nicely retold.

Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire offered a somewhat more detailed version of the anecdote in 1997, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that Woodward and Goldman blamed each other for having made up the line.

“The screenplay was written by William Goldman,” Safire wrote. “When Schorr called him, the famed screenwriter at first insisted that the line came from the book; when proved mistaken about that, he said: ‘I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay. I guess he made it up.”’

Safire wrote that Schorr “then called Woodward, who could not find the phrase in his exhaustive notes of Watergate interviews. The reporter told Schorr he could no longer rely on his memory as to whether Deep Throat had said the line and was inclined to believe that Goldman had invented it.”

This thin slice of Watergate arcana certainly is intriguing. And it testifies to how movies can propel media-driven myths.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men is, I write in Getting It Wrong, an important reason why the heroic-journalist interpretation has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal.

The movie version placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of the unraveling of Watergate while downplaying or dismissing the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

WJC

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