W. Joseph Campbell

Watergate and its hardy myths

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 16, 2010 at 1:38 pm

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

The heroic-journalist myth has it that the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal and forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But as I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, not even the Post buys that interpretation. Plus, I note in debunking the myth:

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

To explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist, I write in Getting It Wrong, is to short-change and “misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

The myth, though, is endlessly appealing–as suggested anew by the comment posted yesterday at the eWeekEurope online site. In a discussion about legal troubles facing Wikileaks founder and frontman Julian Assange, eWeekEurope declares that the Washington Post “played a major part in bringing down Nixon with its Watergate exposé.”

As I noted often at Media Myth Alert: No, the Post didn’t.

Woodward himself noted a few years ago:

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

The heroic-journalist myth has given rise to what I call “a stubborn subsidiary myth of Watergate—namely, that the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein were a profound stimulus to enrollments in collegiate journalism programs.”

Journalism supposedly was made sexy by the reporters’ exploits, as recounted in their best-selling book, All the President’s Men, and the cinematic version by the same title.

“After Watergate, colleges were swamped with kids wanting to study journalism and find the next big government scandal to expose,” as a commentary at the online site of the Herald News in Fall River, Massachusetts, put it the other day.

But there is no evidence to support the notion that “enrollments in journalism programs surged” in any meaningful way in Watergate’s aftermath, I write in Getting It Wrong, noting:

“The subsidiary myth lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

One such study was financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and conducted by researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf. They reported in 1995 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.”

Becker and Graf added:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

Regrettably, there is little evidence that such fine research has put much of a dent at all in the subsidiary myth of Watergate.

WJC

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  5. […] movie came out in April 1976, less than two years after the Watergate scandal reached a climax with the resignation of President Richard […]

  6. […] Watergate fame has been on the lecture circuit of late and his talks have stirred reference to the myth that he and the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. […]

  7. […] I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimension and magnitude of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal […]

  8. […] I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the sweep and dimension of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal […]

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  10. […] I argue “no, not at all,” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–among them the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate. […]

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  14. […] Sydney Morning Herald does just that in turning to a particularly hardy media myth — that of Edward R. Murrow’s supposedly decisive televised report in 1954 about Senator […]

  15. […] a media myth — a misreading of history that not even the Post […]

  16. […] Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, writes scathingly and at length in the latest Newsweek about the phone-hacking scandal that has […]

  17. […] Holbrook delivered the line with such quiet conviction that it did seem to be a way through the labyrinth that was the Watergate scandal. […]

  18. […] such quiet conviction that it seemed to be a guide to unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate. Bernstein (Newseum […]

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