W. Joseph Campbell

‘So to Speak’ about ‘Getting It Wrong’

In Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 18, 2011 at 6:32 am

My mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, made the Columbus Dispatch yesterday as the subject of a cleverly written column that opened this way:

“After interviewing W. Joseph Campbell, I checked the Dispatch archives to see whether I had ever committed any of the journalistic exaggerations he likes to skewer.

“I did write in 2005 that Mark Felt, the ‘Deep Throat‘ of Watergate fame, ‘rid the world of Richard Nixon.’ But I was overstating for effect, so I plead not guilty by reason of humor.”

Heh, heh. Nice touch.

The author was Joe Blundo, a veteran reporter who writes the “So to Speak” column for the “Life and Arts” section of the Dispatch.

The column was pegged to my book talk this afternoon at Ohio Wesleyan University, where I earned my undergraduate degree in journalism and history in the mid-1970s.

Blundo in his column offered overviews of some of the 10 media-driven myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong, including the notion that “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post brought down Nixon with their Watergate reporting.

“Certainly Woodward and Bernstein (and Woodward’s source Deep Throat) had a role in the drama,” Blundo wrote, “but it took investigators, Congress and the Supreme Court to ultimately force the president to resign, Campbell, 58, said by phone.”

He further quoted me as saying that against the backdrop of subpoena-wielding authorities who dug into the crimes of Watergate, “the contributions of The Washington Post really recede into near insignificance.”

The newspaper’s contributions weren’t decisive, that’s for sure. Even officials at the Post have attempted over the years to distance the newspaper from the popular narrative that its reporting forced Nixon to resign.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, was among the senior figures at the  Post who dismissed that mediacentric link. She said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“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.”

Also that year, Ben Bradlee,the executive editor at the Post during Watergate, said on the “Meet the Press” interview show:

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

Blundo also quoted me about some of the reasons media-driven myths are so tenacious and appealing — that they place the news media decisively at the center of important events and that they offer simplistic explanations for complex issues and developments of the past.

“Yet the myths won’t die,” he wrote.

I’m afraid he’s right. Media myths die hard, if they die at all.

The only way to counter them is to call them out, to pound away at them when they appear in the news media. Even then, utter and thorough debunking is rare. These stories, after all, often are too good not to be true.

And often too good to check out.

WJC

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