W. Joseph Campbell

Imprecise, overwrought Watergate analogies emerge in Murdoch scandal

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 17, 2011 at 3:00 am

Meeting his Watergate?

Watergate has become a frequent though imprecise point of reference for the reporting scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain, prompting the closure of a leading Sunday tabloid, the resignation of two executives prominent in his news empire, and groveling apologies in print.

The scandal, which centers on illegal hacking of cell phone voicemail, has come to called Murdoch’s Watergate, a characterization embraced especially by Murdoch’s  enemies in America, hoping that this imbroglio may finally brings down the tough old media mogul.

The phone-hacking scandal is “a debacle that features Murdoch starring in the eerily similar role as the one Dick Nixon played,” declared Eric Boehlert in an essay posted the other day at Huffington Post.

Carl Bernstein, who teamed with Bob Woodward in covering Watergate for the Washington Post, has notably promoted the Murdoch-Watergate comparison.

In an essay titled “Murdoch’s Watergate?” and published recently in Newsweek, Bernstein wrote, not surprisingly:

“For this reporter, it is impossible not to consider these facts through the prism of Watergate. … The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within [Murdoch's] News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.”

But it’s imprecise, premature, and a bit overwrought to liken the phone-hacking scandal to Watergate.

It’s no Watergate. Not yet, anyway. And it’s certainly not clear that Murdoch authorized policies that “routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.”

Watergate was sui generis, an unprecedented constitutional crisis that led in to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974. He was the first U.S. president ever to resign.

In addition, 19 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for Watergate-related crimes. (Woodward once called Watergate “an immensely complicated scandal with a cast of characters as varied as a Tolstoy novel.”)

Rolling up a scandal of such dimension required, as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “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, Nixon likely would have survived and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most private conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. (Woodward has endorsed that interpretation as well. He said in an online chat at washingtonpost.com in 1997 that “if the tapes had never been discovered, or [Nixon] had burned them, he almost surely would not have had to resign, in my view.”)

Toppling Nixon was no certain outcome of Watergate, at least not in the first year or so of the slowly unfolding scandal. And bringing down Nixon wasn’t a consequence of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, hoary media myth notwithstanding.

The phone-hacking scandal — in which reporters and private investigators for Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid broke into the voicemail of scores of people — has been an occasion to conjure Watergate in another way. In a romanticized, glowing way that recalls Watergate as a golden age in American journalism.

The Houston Chronicle has given expression to the golden-age sentiment.

The newspaper declared in a tut-tutting editorial the other day that the phone-hacking scandal “is a very long way from the saga of All the President’s Men, the uplifting account of how two dogged young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with the backing of ethically responsible Washington Post management, broke the Watergate scandal in 1972 that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It inspired a generation of new journalists to their mission and exhibited the finest aspects of the profession.”

All the President’s Men was Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book about their Watergate reporting. The book’s cinematic version came out in 1976 and helped solidify the mythical notion that the Post brought down Nixon.

It deserves noting that the Chronicle’s editorial errs in at least three respects.

One, the Post management was not always so “ethically responsible” during Watergate.

For example, top editors approved an ethically suspect scheme allowing Woodward and Bernstein to approach federal grand jurors hearing Watergate testimony and ask them to break their vows of secrecy. As the reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, the ill-advised overtures to grand jurors nearly landed them in jail.

Two, the Post did not break the Watergate scandal.

The signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters — was interrupted by police. Within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The Post’s article about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and it drew heavily on information from investigators.

In subsequent Watergate reporting, moreover, the Post exposed  neither the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in, nor the payment of hush money to the burglars. Nor did it break the news about Nixon’s secret audiotapes.

Three, the claim that coverage of Watergate “inspired a generation of new journalists to their mission” is exaggerated.

Watergate produced no enrollment surge in journalism programs at American colleges and university. Enrollment growth in fact had begun well before Woodward and Bernstein wrote their first Watergate-related story in 1972.

Still, as I note in Getting It Wrong, the notion that Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of students to take up journalism “lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

Like many media-driven myths, the tale of inspiration is almost too good not to be true.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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