W. Joseph Campbell

Every good historian a mythbuster

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 27, 2011 at 6:10 am

While researching studies of memorable or decisive years recently, I happened across a Washington Post review of The Year That Changed the World, a book about 1989.

I was impressed by this passage in the review:

The good historian is a mythbuster.”

Indeed.

Couldn’t agree more.

The reviewer, Gerard DeGroot, also wrote:

“The past is what happened, history what we decide to remember. We mine the past for myths to buttress our present.”

That’s well said, too. It’s a characterization that offers insight about the rise and diffusion of media-driven myths, 10 of which I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

History often is what we decide to remember. And we tend to remember what’s most accessible, what’s most easy to remember.

Take, for example, the mediacentric interpretation of Watergate, the greatest political scandal in American history, a scandal that destroyed a presidency and sent nearly twenty men to jail.

The shorthand, easy-to-grasp version of Watergate is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, aided immeasurably by a stealthy, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat,” brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

That’s also the mediacentric version of Watergate, the version journalists love to recall. It serves to remind them of the potential power of the news media.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, the mediacentric interpretation is misleading and historically inaccurate; it “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office,” I write.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, I add, “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.

“Even then,” I argue, “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.”

So why do we choose to remember the Woodward-Bernstein-mediacentric interpretation of Watergate? Why has it become the dominant narrative of the scandal? That it is shorn of complexity and easy to grasp is one reason.

A more powerful reason is to be found in the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting.

The book came out in June 1974 as Watergate was approaching its climax, and was a best-seller.

All the President’s Men was an even greater success in its screen adaptation. It was released 35 years ago this spring and surely ranks as the most-viewed movie about Watergate.

To an extent “far greater than the book,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I add, “was to solidify and elevate” the heroic-journalist myth of Woodward and Bernstein, “giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

For contemporary journalists who confront sustained and sweeping upheaval in their field, the mediacentric myth of Watergate is comforting,  reassuring.

Recalling the myth and treating it as authentic serves to buttress the present against the riptide of change.

WJC

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