W. Joseph Campbell

Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 10, 2011 at 8:42 am

Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has been on the lecture circuit of late and his talks have stirred reference to the myth that his reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974.

'Nixon got Nixon'

It’s not that Woodward has been making such mythical claims. Rather, they pop up in fawning news reports about his talks.

For notable example, consider the article posted yesterday at the online site of the Indianapolis Star. The article, a preview of Woodward’s talk in that city Friday, declared glowingly:

“For 40 years, Bob Woodward has pried open some of the toughest secrets in government, from the Watergate scandal to the secret war in Pakistan.

“His reporting has exposed corruption, helped to send people to jail and pressured a president to resign.”

The writeup continued much in that frothy vein, declaring:

“As a young reporter at The Post, Woodward teamed up with Carl Bernstein to dig into a ‘third-rate burglary’ of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex. Over many months, through hundreds of stories, the two exposed political dirty tricks and abuse of power in the Nixon White House that eventually forced Nixon from office.”

Let’s address and untangle the myths invoked here.

For starters, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein did not pressure or force Nixon to resign.

While their reporting won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973, it did not break open the Watergate scandal. It did not uncover the evidence that led or contributed to Nixon’s resignation.

To argue otherwise it did is to indulge in the beguiling “heroic-journalist myth,”  which, as I write in my latest book,  Getting It Wrong, has become “the most familiar storyline of Watergate.”

The heroic-journalist meme, I note, offers “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.”

To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate, I write, “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 likely would have served out his term if not for disclosures about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the Watergate break-in, I write in Getting It Wrong.

So against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in importance.

Their contributions were modest, I write, “and certainly not decisive” to the outcome of Watergate.

This is not to say their reporting on Watergate was without distinction.

I note in Getting It Wrong that 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 money was diverted to fund the break-in, the first to tie former Attorney General John Mitchell to the scandal, the first to link top Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman to Watergate.

But those reports were scarcely enough to unseat a president.

Put another way, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the evidence vital to understanding and unraveling the scandal.

They did not disclose the White House-led cover-up and payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars. Nor did they reveal the existence of Nixon’s secret White House tapes, which proved decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

No, Woodward and Bernstein and the Post did not force Nixon from office. As Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor during the Watergate period, said in 1997:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Or as Woodward put it in an interview with American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

Now there’s an emphatic line that Woodward might consider working into his speeches.

WJC

Recent and related:

About these ads
  1. [...] Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth (via Media Myth Alert) Posted on 11 March, 2011 by Jarle Petterson Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has been on the lecture circuit of late and his talks have stirred reference to the myth that his reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in 1974. It’s not that Woodward has been making such mythical claims. Rather, they pop up in fawning news reports about his talks. … Read More [...]

  2. [...] into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post. Felt: Didn't say [...]

  3. [...] Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth (via Media Myth Alert) Posted on March 12, 2011 by npb1 Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has been on the lecture circuit of late and his talks have stirred reference to the myth that his reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon's corrupt presidency in 1974. It's not that Woodward has been making such mythical claims. Rather, they pop up in fawning news reports about his talks. … Read More [...]

  4. [...] — the simplified and misleading interpretation that the reporting of  Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that forced Nixon’s resignation in [...]

  5. [...] Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth [...]

  6. [...] reporting about the “dirty tricks” organized by Donald Segretti, a minor figure in the Watergate scandal, led to his imprisonment. Segretti pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of [...]

  7. [...] Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth [...]

  8. [...] heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate has become “the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for [...]

  9. [...] heroic-journalist interpretation has it that the scandal’s disclosure pivoted on Woodward and Bernstein’s [...]

  10. [...] to talk, anyway: It’s not as if his reporting on Watergate for the Washington Post — the reporting that won him lasting acclaim — was free of dubious technique. Far from [...]

  11. [...] a revealing point that goes to the heart of what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: Disclosures by “Deep Throat” didn’t bring down Nixon’s [...]

  12. [...] embrace that interpretation of Watergate is, I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in [...]

  13. [...] against the tableau of subpoena-wielding authorities, the contributions of the Post in Watergate fade in [...]

  14. [...] cinematic version of All the President’s Men solidified what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the simplistic notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s investigative [...]

  15. [...] is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared to the work of such [...]

  16. [...] sent to jail would have interrupted and may well have ended their reporting on Watergate. (The myths surrounding Bernstein and Woodward’s work are discussed in my latest book, Getting It [...]

  17. [...] yesterday, Britain’s Sky News channel became the latest news outlet to indulge in the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, declaring in a report posted online that “Bernstein was one of two reporters [...]

  18. [...] heroic-journalist myth, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, is “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its [...]

  19. [...] The passing of time is making the heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate even more heroic. [...]

  20. [...] Guardian, one of London’s top newspapers, bought into Watergate’s dominant myth yesterday in a flattering article about Carl Bernstein, who teamed with Bob Woodward to report the [...]

  21. [...] at the center of Watergate in popular consciousness” while projecting and reinforcing the erroneous notion that the scandal’s outcome pivoted on disclosures reported by the news [...]

  22. [...] Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth [...]

  23. [...] reminders helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which to this day endures as the dominant thought misleading narrative about the [...]

  24. [...] Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth [...]

  25. [...] third factor in pressing the heroic-journalist myth firmly into the popular consciousness was the 30-year guessing game about the identity of [...]

  26. [...] Committee. This installment discusses the notion that the Washington Post “uncovered” the Watergate story. Post’s Watergate story, June 18, 1972 (Ransom Center, University of [...]

  27. [...] in Washington of the Democratic National Committee. This installment addresses the notion that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein placed the reporters in grave [...]

  28. [...] I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter confronting what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that [...]

  29. [...] and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — was propelled and solidified by the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein‘s 1974 book, All the President’s [...]

  30. [...] why does the mediacentric heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate live on? Why is it so tempting to invoke, as the Journal does [...]

  31. […] the Post building been designated a landmark, a likely upshot would have to deepen the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. Landmark status could have further entrenched the erroneous notion that the Post was the place […]

  32. […] not in hostility, bring some depth to the almost-reflexive characterizations of Bernstein as heroic, as a superstar. The unflattering material helps to deepen and round out the biography in a way […]

  33. […] what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of […]

  34. […] passage indulges in the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal — the mistaken notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and […]

Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,749 other followers

%d bloggers like this: