W. Joseph Campbell

Media myth distorts Chicago Tribune timeline of newspaper history

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

The Chicago Tribune the other day published a timeline of American newspaper history over the past 50 years — a chronology tainted by the inclusion of a prominent media myth.

The Tribune declared “the daily paper remains vital to an informed citizenry” in presenting the timeline, which it said demonstrated “how newspapers expose — and occasionally commit — wrongdoing.”

The myth appears in the timeline entry for 1974, which says: “A corrupt U.S. president, Richard Nixon, is brought down by a newspaper, The Washington Post.”

Brought down by a newspaper.

Now, that may be the popular dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — that the dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the corruption that forced Nixon’s resignation.

But it’s a mythical, media-centric interpretation, a trope that not even the Post embraces.

In fact, Woodward once dismissed such characterizations as “horseshit.” And for good reason.

As I discuss in a chapter in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate demanded the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Even then, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term had it not been 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 telltale 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.

It is interesting to note that the Post in its Watergate reporting did not disclose the existence of the Watergate tapes, nor did the newspaper identify or unravel the coverup of Watergate-related crimes.

To assert that the Post brought down Nixon is, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of this hoary media myth? Why does it persist, despite the evidence that can be arrayed against it?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

The Watergate myth, after all, offers a simplistic, easy-to-grasp interpretation of a scandal that was intimidating in its complexity: The web of misconduct that took down Nixon also landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

Media myths often spring from simplicity, from the desire for tidy and uncomplicated versions of history. Not only that, but the notion that the Post brought down Nixon fits neatly into a timeline.

A feel-good component buoys the Watergate myth, too: The myth affirms the notion that newspapers, beleaguered though they are, really can make a difference in American politics and in American democracy.

Which, itself, is something of a media myth.

WJC

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