W. Joseph Campbell

Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 9, 2011 at 7:41 am

The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center dedicated to “teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders,” offered up a myth of Watergate yesterday in an article that ruminated about Lady Gaga’s potential to “awaken her young fans to 21st century journalism.”

Gaga: Inspiring?

The Poynter piece discussed the, ahem, news that pop star Gaga would guest-edit the May 17 editions of the giveaway newspaper Metro. The freesheet is available in many large cities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Metro was launched by a Swedish company in 1995.

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is not so much Lady Gaga’s one-off editing adventure but the Poynter article’s reference to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, lead Washington Post reporters on the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

The article stated:

“As Lady Gaga takes her celebrity into the worlds of journalism and photography, does it bring cachet to a struggling and confused industry that might need a tad of glamour and inspiration? She certainly has encouraged her fans to blog, create videos and design costumes.

“In the 1970s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired a generation to major in journalism and become investigative reporters. … Could Lady Gaga awaken her young fans to 21st century journalism?”

Woodward

The notion that the work of Woodward and Bernstein “inspired a generation” of journalism students is a persistent subsidiary myth of Watergate.

There’s no evidence to support it.

I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that the subsidiary myth “lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

One study was financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995. In it, researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf reported finding 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.”

Becker and Graf added:

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

Seven years earlier, Maxwell E. McCombs reported in the Gannett Center Journal that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972. That also was the year Woodward and Bernstein published the investigative reports about Watergate that won for the Post the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service.

McCombs, a veteran mass communication scholar, further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

The appeal of the subsidiary myth, I write in Getting It Wrong, stems from the fact that it is so “easily understood: It endures because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward—too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

That is, Woodward and Bernstein made journalism seem sexy, vital, urgent. They were, after all, subjects of a major motion picture, All the President’s Men, which was based on their best-selling book by the same title.

And their reporting did bring down a corrupt president.

Or so goes the central myth of Watergate — that of the heroic-journalist. The heroic-journalist meme holds that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes and misdeeds of Richard Nixon’s presidency, forcing him from office.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, not even the Post buys into that simplistic interpretation of American journalism’s greatest political scandal.

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,” I write, noting:

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces typically wielded subpoenas and included special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Justice Department, and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

WJC

My thanks to LittleMissAttila for linking to this post.

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