W. Joseph Campbell

Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 12, 2011 at 7:23 am

Gaffe-prone Joe Biden offered Russians this week a mythical and distorted version of American history,  declaring at Moscow State University that the Washington Post “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

It’s an interpretation of Watergate that few serious historians embrace.

Gaffe-prone

And yet, according to the transcript of the vice president’s remarks posted online by the White House, Biden told his audience:

“In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

Not 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 newspaper from such a misleading assessment.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, said in 1997, at a program marking the 25th anniversary of the scandal:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Ben Bradlee,who was executive editor at the Post during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show in 1997:

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

More recently, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

Their comments are not the representations of false modesty: They speak to a more accurate reading of the history of Watergate than Biden offered his audience in Moscow.

Watergate-related reporting in the Post – even though it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 — was scarcely enough to turn from office a sitting president.

As 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 judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

And even then, I write, “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, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Biden’s remarks reflect an endorsement of I call the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate — the simplified and misleading interpretation that the reporting of  Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But not even Woodward endorses that interpretation. He said in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review:

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

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist meme has nonetheless “become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: 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,” I write.

But being deeply ingrained and popular doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Far from it.

I note in Getting It Wrong that “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.” And they included the very forces Biden dismissed in his remarks in Moscow –the FBI and the Justice Department.

The transcript of Biden’s speech, delivered Thursday, also shows that he flubbed the characterization of the news media, which sometimes are collectively referred to as the “Fourth Estate.”

According to Biden, they’re the “Third Estate.”

WJC

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