W. Joseph Campbell

Who, or what, brought down Nixon?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Who brought him down?

The easy, but wrong, answer to the question of who or what brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that interpretation has become “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also a prominent media-driven myth–a well-known but dubious or improbable tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

What I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate offers a convenient, accessible, easy-to-grasp version of what was a sprawling and intricate scandal.

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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.”

Britain’s Spectator magazine takes up the Watergate question in an article about fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that has swept up Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sunday News of the World.

To its credit, Spectator sidestepped the heroic-journalist myth in declaring:

“Everyone who remembers the Watergate scandal remembers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting. Brilliant though it was, the Nixon administration was destroyed not by the Washington Post, but by Sam Ervin’s Senate committee, which had the powers parliamentary select committees ought to have to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to talk or go to jail for contempt.”

While commendable in eschewing the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation, the Spectator commentary overstated the importance of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which was chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina and took testimony during the spring and summer of 1973.

Rather than destroying Nixon’s presidency, the select committee had the effect of training public attention on the crimes of Watergate and, in the testimony it elicited, offered a way to determine whether Nixon had a guilty role in the scandal.

The select committee’s signal contribution to unraveling Watergate came in producing the revelation that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations with top aides in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes, I note in Getting It Wrong, “proved crucial to the scandal’s outcome.”

They constituted Nixon’s “deepest secret,” Stanley Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, has written.

The revelation about their existence set off a year-long effort to force Nixon to turn over the tapes, as they promised to clear or implicate him in the scandal.

Nixon resisted surrendering the tapes until compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in July 1974.

The tapes revealed his guilty role in seeking to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate’s seminal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the offices of the Democratic national committee in Washington.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

In the final analysis, then, who or what brought down Richard Nixon?

Certainly not Woodward and Bernstein. Not the Senate select committee, either.

The best answer is that rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate “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,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon 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,” making inevitable the early end of his presidency.

WJC

Recent and related:

About these ads
  1. [...] it should be noted, did the Post bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt [...]

  2. [...] that media myths — such as the notion that investigative reporting by the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal — often seek to [...]

  3. [...] by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 brought down his [...]

  4. [...] by covering up the break-in at headquarters Democratic national committee headquarters in 1972 that brought down his [...]

  5. [...] in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal” and brought about  Nixon’s resignation in August [...]

  6. [...] the money” until June 1981 – nearly seven years after the scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency. (The Post article in 1981 simply mentioned that “follow the money” had been used in a [...]

  7. [...] Who, or what, brought down Nixon? [...]

  8. [...] Except that the Post never used the phrase in its articles or editorials about Watergate. [...]

  9. [...] 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. 'Nixon got [...]

  10. [...] even the Washington Post buys into that myth-encrusted version of history. Principals at the Post have from time to time over the years sought to distance the [...]

  11. [...] most tenacious myths — the notion that reporting by the Washington Post “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate [...]

  12. [...] newspaper’s contributions weren’t decisive, that’s for sure. Even officials at the Post have attempted over the years to distance the [...]

  13. [...] I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, dismissed that interpretation, declaring in [...]

  14. [...] the notion that the press — specifically, the Washington Post — brought down Nixon in the Watergate scandal is an interpretation that even the Post has sought to [...]

  15. [...] Woodward and the Washington Post did not bring down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal of [...]

  16. [...] I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men helped ensure that Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post would be regarded as vital and central to the unraveling of Watergate. [...]

  17. [...] Who, or what, brought down Nixon? [...]

  18. [...] in September 1960 because he looked so much more rested and telegenic than his rival, Richard M. Nixon. There is, however, scant evidence to support that notion, which was revived yesterday in a [...]

  19. [...] That was when John F. Kennedy supposedly won the first-ever televised debate between U.S. presidential candidates because he appeared so poised, rested, and telegenic compared to his sweaty, haggard-looking rival, Richard M. Nixon. [...]

  20. [...] no more ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt than Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in Watergate — and, as Unger wrote, “saved the [...]

  21. [...] The past couple of days have brought an eruption of media myth — notably, the rich and appealing tale that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal. [...]

  22. [...] evidence would have been so damaging and explosive that it surely would have forced Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did, in August [...]

  23. [...] it has been occasion to assert hyperbolic claims that the Post’s reporting on Watergate brought down Richard Nixon’s scandal-riddled [...]

  24. [...] toppled Nixon, what brought down his presidency, was clear evidence of his culpability in the crimes of Watergate — evidence captured on [...]

  25. [...] unraveled Nixon’s presidency wasn’t the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein for the Post but the incontrovertible evidence [...]

  26. [...] heroic-journalist narrative has it that Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was brought down through the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington [...]

  27. [...] book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was at best a minor factor in bringing down Richard [...]

  28. [...] Committee. This installment discusses the tenacious myth that reporting by the  Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt [...]

  29. [...] Watergate was America’s gravest political scandal. It began as a police beat story. [...]

  30. [...] Watergate was America’s gravest political scandal. It began as a police beat story. [...]

  31. [...] encounter, between John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, gave rise to the media myth of viewer-listener disagreement: Those who watched the debate on [...]

  32. [...] participants may have been more readily sympathetic to Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, than to Nixon, the [...]

  33. [...] principals at the Post — Woodward among them — have asserted over the years that the newspaper did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. And they weren’t indulging in false modesty in saying so. [...]

  34. [...] in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting did not bring down Nixon. They didn’t uncover the scandal, [...]

  35. [...] The movie’s narrow focus, I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, served “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate — the notion that the dogged work of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon. [...]

  36. […] for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Nixon’s corrupt […]

  37. […] claim that Richard Nixon never made — that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam — has […]

  38. […] or 1973 (and had the Post published such information), the uproar would have been so intense that Nixon surely would have had to resign the presidency long before he did in August […]

  39. […] myth — that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is so hardy. It’s easy to grasp and easy to […]

  40. […] dominant narrative is that Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency. It’s one of 10 media-driven myths debunked in my 2010 book, […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,694 other followers

%d bloggers like this: