W. Joseph Campbell

‘The newspaper that uncovered Watergate’?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm

The Huffington Post online news site, in a thoughtful piece today about the Kaplan Higher Education subsidiary that makes the Washington Post profitable, offers up a mistaken claim about the newspaper and the Watergate scandal.

The Huffington Post item states that “the same company bearing the name of the newspaper that uncovered Watergate, that published the Pentagon Papers, and more recently revealed the existence of secret CIA-operated prisons in Eastern Europe now draws its largest share of revenues from an enterprise that seems on par with subprime mortgage lending in terms of its commitment to public welfare.”

As I say, it’s a thoughtful piece.

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is the reference to Watergate–that the Washington Post “uncovered” the scandal.

Simply put, that’s erroneous. Erroneous to say the Post “uncovered Watergate.”

This is not to quibble, but rather to insist on extending credit where credit is due.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had at best a marginal effect on the outcome of the scandal, in which 19 men associated with Richard Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail.

Nixon resigned in 1974, in face of certain impeachment and conviction for his role in Watergate.

Rolling up a scandal of such dimension, I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

I point out that the reporting of the Post “did not uncover defining and decisive elements” of Watergate—notably the cover-up of the break-in” at the Watergate complex in June 1972.

The Watergate cover-up was exposed incrementally in 1973 and 1974 by such subpoena-wielding entities as federal prosecutors, federal grand juries, and investigators for the U.S. Senate select committee on Watergate.

It was the select committee, not the Post, that disclosed the existence of the White House audiotaping system that proved so critical to determining Nixon’s fate.

Only when ordered by the Supreme Court did Nixon to surrender audiotapes of Watergate-related conversations recorded at the White House–conversations that clearly demonstrated his guilty role in the scandal’s cover-up and forced his resignation.

This is not to say the reporting by the Post on Watergate was without distinction. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, after all.

And I note in Getting It Wrong that as “the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the burglary.”

The Post was the first news organization to report a connection between the Watergate burglars and the White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign funds to for Nixon’s reelection were used to finance the break-in, and the first to implicate John Mitchell, the former U.S. attorney general, in the scandal.

Those reports were published in the Post during the four months immediately after the break-in at the Watergate. By late October 1972, however, the newspaper’s investigation into Watergate was “out of gas,” as Barry Sussman, then the city editor for the Post, later put it.

In early November 1972, Nixon was reelected to the presidency, defeating the hapless Democratic candidate, George McGovern, in a 49-state landslide.

WJC

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