W. Joseph Campbell

Misreporting Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 20, 2011 at 5:15 am

That new historical marker at the parking garage where Bob Woodward of the Washington Post occasionally met his stealthy “Deep Throat” source has stirred some cheery buzz among journalists — and some breathtaking exaggeration about the consequences of Woodward’ reporting on the Watergate scandal.

Credit: Odestreet.com

The marker titled “Watergate Investigation” went up late last week outside the garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia.

As I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, the marker errs in stating that information Deep Throat” (who in 2005 was self-revealed to have been W. Mark Felt) provided Woodward “exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

For some news outlets commenting about the marker, it has been occasion to assert hyperbolic claims that the Post’s reporting on Watergate brought down Richard Nixon’s scandal-riddled presidency.

For example, the widely followed all-news radio station in Washington, WTOP,  said yesterday in its report about the marker:

“Mark ‘Deep Throat’ Felt, passed state secrets to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward for a string of stories that would eventually take down a president — what would come to be known as the Watergate scandal.”

Quite simply not true.

Felt, formerly a top official at the FBI, offered Woodward mostly incremental details about Watergate as the scandal unfolded in 1972 and 1973. And as Woodward noted in the book, All the President’s Men, the role of “Deep Throat” was “only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere, and to add some perspective.”

It was hardly the stuff of “state secrets.”

More important, the reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein assuredly did not “take down” Nixon’s presidency.

Embracing that interpretation of Watergate, I write my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

It’s an interpretation that not even officials at the Post have endorsed.

For example, Kathryn Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after Watergate, said in 1997, at a Newseum 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.”

And Woodward, in earthier terms, has concurred, telling American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

The popular Washington entertainment blog, DCist, offered an even stranger interpretation of “Deep Throat” and his meetings with Woodward in the garage.

DCist, in a brief report about the marker, said yesterday the garage was where  “the informant, the FBI’s Mark ‘Deep Throat’ Felt, fessed up to what would eventually become the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.”

Huh? The “Deep Throat” source “fessed up to what would eventually become the Watergate scandal”?

“Fessed up”?

Such wording suggests that Felt/”Deep Throat” was a culprit or a suspect in the Watergate scandal.

Which he wasn’t.

Felt in fact wasn’t even around the FBI when the scandal reached its climax with Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

He had been passed over for the FBI directorship and left the agency in 1973. Felt last conferred with Woodward at the Arlington garage in November that year.

But that’s not to say Felt was beyond reproach.

He really wasn’t such a hero.

In his senior position at the FBI, Felt had authorized illegal burglaries in the early 1970s as part of the agency’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground.

Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to those break-ins, but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.

So if it not Felt’s tips to Woodward, what then brought down Nixon?

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension demanded “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 write, “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 the recordings that captured him plotting to cover up the break-in in June 1972, the signal crime of Watergate.

WJC

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