This is the first of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee. This installment discusses the tenacious myth
that reporting by the Washington Post brought down
Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
For years, the dominant narrative of Watergate has been that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post revealed the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.
I note in Getting It Wrong that the media-centric heroic-journalist construct “has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate,” serving as “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”
The misdeeds of Watergate were many. Twenty men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy.
Three powerful and related factors have propelled and solidified the heroic-journalist trope in the popular consciousness.
One factor was Woodward and Bernstein’s engaging book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, which came out in June 1974, just as the scandal was nearing culmination.
As Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s preeminent historian, has written, All the President’s Men “offered a journalistic brief to the nation as it prepared to understand and judge for itself” the growing evidence of Nixon’s guilt.
All the President’s Men was quite the success, holding the top spot on the New York Times’ non-fiction best-seller list for 15 weeks — through the climatic days of Watergate and beyond.
“The book’s impeccable timing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, served to “promote an impression that Woodward and Bernstein were central to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.”
Indeed, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity required the collective efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.
And even then, as I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.
Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The third factor in pressing the heroic-journalist myth firmly into the popular consciousness was the 30-year guessing game about the identity of Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source whom a Post editor code-named “Deep Throat.”
Speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” came not infrequently and was often prominent. The guessing game offered periodic reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage. The speculation effectively kept Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise might have.
In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly second in command at the FBI, disclosed that he had been the “Deep Throat” source — giving rise to yet another round of reminiscing about the heroic journalists of Watergate.
Such preening was misplaced, of course.
As Max Holland, author of Leak, a recent book about Watergate and “Deep Throat,” has aptly put it:
“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Post’s [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”
Interestingly, principals at the Post have periodically scoffed at and rejected the heroic-journalist narrative.
For example, Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, said at a program in 1997 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 complained in 1996 that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon.
Recent or related:
- Woodward and Bernstein: The ‘only superstars newspapers ever produced’?
- Historian dismisses as ‘self-promotion’ the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate
- Something exaggerated in hero-worship of Woodward
- Perceptive observations about Woodward, Bernstein, media power
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- Who, or what, brought down Nixon?
- More mythical claims for WaPo’s Watergate reporting
- Jimmy Carter fumbles Watergate history
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Some snarky history from WaPo
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘Q-and-A’