W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 2, 2013 at 7:58 am

News that the Washington Post is exploring the sale of its headquarters building inevitably stirred reminders of the Watergate scandal, supposedly the newspaper’s most memorable exposé.

The Wall Street Journal makes that link in an article today while credulously invoking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.

wapo-logo“The Washington, D.C., newsroom where two reporters took down a president may soon be on the block,” the Journal states, referring to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead reporters on America’s greatest political scandal.

While it may make for a catchy “lede” (journalese for a story’s opening paragraph), the reference to the reporters who “took down a president” is wrong-headed: It’s a media myth that simplifies and distorts the forces and factors that led Nixon to quit in disgrace.

Even principals at the PostWoodward among them — have asserted over the years that the newspaper did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. And they weren’t indulging in false modesty in saying so. (Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once said, for example: “[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”)

And as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “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.

Nixon quits

‘Nixon got Nixon’

“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 does the mediacentric heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate live on? Why is it so tempting to invoke, as the Journal does today?

Explanations go well beyond a reporter’s need for a catchy lede.

An especially compelling reason for the myth’s tenacity is that it makes accessible and understandable the intricate scandal that was Watergate.

That complexity —the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not readily recalled these days.

The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

What does stand out, though, is the heroic-journalist meme — the appealing if misleading notion that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought Nixon down.

It’s history lite, history made simple.

The myth is endlessly reassuring for journalists, too, suggesting as it does that journalism can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also one of journalism’s self-sustaining tales, as the Wall Street Journal demonstrates quite well today.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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