W. Joseph Campbell

More mythical claims for WaPo’s Watergate reporting

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2011 at 8:35 am

Nixon quits

The claims for the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seldom are very modest. The mythical notion that their reporting brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974 is among the most cherished — and extravagant — tales in American journalism.

But the assertions posted yesterday at the online site of a Texas alternative newspaper were extraordinary in their lavishness.

The newspaper, the Austin Chronicle, declared:

“In the summer of 1972, when the unlikely duo of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein stumbled onto what would turn out to be the most important hard news story of the century, investigative journalism and the gritty and laborious, but ultimately necessary, processes it entailed reached a zenith.

“Public people in positions of great – and presumably unassailable – power went to prison as a result of Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged determination not to allow what was initially perceived as a nonstory to die out. They stuck to their guns, their guts, and their deadlines. And in the end, President Richard Milhous Nixon, facing impeachment and charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, was forced out of office by genuine, bipartisan outrage. Absolute hubris corrupted absolutely. It was a brief, shining moment when American journalism not only shook the pillars of power but also very nearly toppled them.”

There’s a lot of exaggeration to unpack there, so let’s focus on key claims:

  • Woodward and Bernstein “stumbled onto what would turn out to be the most important hard news story of the century.”
  • “Public people” went to prison because of their Watergate reporting.
  • Woodward and Bernstein’s work on Watergate was a moment when “American journalism … shook the pillars of power.”

This is not to quibble with word choice, but Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not stumble onto the Watergate scandal. They were assigned by editors at the Washington Post to dig into the highly suspicious breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic national committee.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his brilliant 1974 essay, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was highly derivative, sustained by leaks from federal investigations into the crimes of Watergate.

And I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that “Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal” — the White House attempt to cover-up crimes associated with the breakin and the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars.

Those aspects of the scandal, Woodward was quoted as saying in 1973, were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

As for the claim that Woodward and Bernstein sent “public people” to jail: Well, who were they?

This is not a claim that Woodward and Bernstein are known to make publicly. And it’s not a claim that appears in their book, All the President’s Men, which describes their reporting on Watergate.

A case might be made that their 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 distributing illegal campaign materials during the 1972 Democratic primaries and spent 4 1/2 months in prison.

But as Epstein noted in his essay, “neither the prosecutors, the grand jury, nor the Watergate Committee … found any evidence to support the Bernstein-Woodward thesis that Watergate was part of the Segretti operation.” Segretti’s dirty tricks were a sideshow, not central elements of the Watergate scandal.

Nor can it be accurately said that Woodward and Bernstein’s work on Watergate represented a moment when “American journalism … shook the pillars of power.”

Those pillars were shaken by an unprecedented constitutional crisis caused not by investigative journalism but by the illegal conduct of Nixon, his senior aides, and officials in reelection campaign.

Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974 following release of audiotapes he secretly made; the content of the tapes showed he had approved an attempt to divert the FBI from investigating the crimes of Watergate. The incriminating tapes were surrendered only after the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the president must turn them over to federal prosecutors.

Nixon, then, was forced from office only after the disclosure of unequivocal proof that he had obstructed justice in the investigation of the crimes of Watergate. The Washington Post had nothing to do with those disclosures.

As Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during the Watergate period has said: It “must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Or as Woodward put it in an interview in 2004:

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

That’s earthy but telling perspective. And it represents a useful antidote to breathtaking and lavish claims about the effects of newspaper reporting.

WJC

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