W. Joseph Campbell

Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 19, 2011 at 8:12 am

An Editor & Publisher commentary yesterday referred to the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as “golden days” of journalism that “made heroes of reporters.”

Journalism schools, the commentary declared, “filled up with idealistic young men and women hoping to become famous and perhaps bring down a president, or two.

“Didn’t Woodward and Bernstein–or Woodstein as they were famously known –practically force President Nixon to resign?”

Er, no.

Not even remotely.

The investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t force Nixon’s resignation. Nor did journalism school enrollments surge because of the presumed glamor effect of their work, as the column suggested.

Both topics–what I call the heroic-journalist myth and the subsidiary or spinoff myth of Watergate–are addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

As I write in Getting It Wrong:

To “explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Rolling up the Watergate scandal, I note, “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.”

And even then, Nixon probably would have served out his term had it not been 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 in the summer of 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

Those disclosures, required by the Supreme Court’s decision, forced Nixon to resign in August 1974.

So against the tableau of special prosecutors, federal judges, congressional panels, the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance–even though their work became the stuff of legend, at least as depicted in the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men.

“Ultimately,” as Michael Getler, the then-ombudsman of the Post, accurately noted in 2005, “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

The spinoff or subsidiary myth of Watergate has it that the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein “were a profound stimulus to enrollments in collegiate journalism programs,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “Journalism supposedly was made sexy by All the President’s Men, and enrollments in journalism schools surged.”

However, there’s at best only anecdotal support for such claims.

Scholarly research has shown that Woodward, Bernstein, and the cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men did not prompt enrollments to climb at journalism and mass communication programs at U.S. college and universities.

One such study, financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation, was 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.”

They added:

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

The E&P commentary, titled “Talking Ethics: Money and Politics,” lamented ethical lapses of contemporary journalists, such as Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, who donate money to political causes and candidates for public office.

The commentary noted that giving money to politicians allows them “one more chance to publicly complain that journalists are all bought and paid for or in somebody’s pocket.”

That’s a fair point.

But in characterizing the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as “golden days,” the commentary overlooked the ethical lapses those reporters committed in their work.

They acknowledged in their book to failed attempts in encouraging federal grand jurors to violate their oaths of secrecy and talk about Watergate testimony. Woodward and Bernstein conceded their efforts were “a seedy venture”–which nonetheless had the approval of top editors at the Post, including the then-executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

Bernstein also acknowledged in the book that he sought and obtained information from otherwise private telephone records.

Woodward and Bernstein also inaccurately attributed to FBI investigators an account published in the Post in October 1972 that said “at least 50 Nixon operatives” had been set loose “to disrupt and spy on Democratic campaigns.” An internal FBI memorandum disputed Woodward and Bernstein’s claim as “absolutely false.”

So those were “golden days”? I’d say that’s erroneous.

WJC

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