W. Joseph Campbell

Landmark status for WaPo building? Watergate reporting ought not be a factor

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 6, 2013 at 9:24 am
A landmark?

A landmark?

Could the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting of 40 years ago become a factor in designating the newspaper’s headquarters a local historic landmark?

If so, such a result would represent a serious misreading of history.

The Washington Business Journal  reported yesterday that the D.C. Preservation League plans to consider whether the Post headquarters building, built in 1950, merits landmark status.

The Post last week said it may put the building up for sale, citing economic and operational reasons.

The Business Journal described the Post building in downtown Washington as an example “of Modernist architecture” and added, in a passage of especial interest to Media Myth Alert:

“Beyond its age and architectural design, one could also make a case that the Watergate reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation makes it doubly historically significant.”

Doubly historically significant?

Hardly. Unless, that is, you embrace the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting exposed the crimes that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But not even principals at the Post have claimed that the newspaper’s Watergate reporting “led to” or otherwise brought about Nixon’s resignation.

As Woodward once told the PBS “Frontline” program, “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. Totally absurd.

“The Washington Post stories,” Woodward said, “had some part in a chain of events that … were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and afterward the Watergate scandal, said at a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“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.”

Quite so.

While it has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate, the heroic-journalist meme has obscured the role of forces far more consequential than the Post in uncovering America’s gravest political scandal.

Those forces, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write 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.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The existence of the White House tapes, by the way, was not uncovered by Woodward and Bernstein. That disclosure came in July 1973, at hearings of a Senate select committee on Watergate.

So it’s quite a stretch to argue that the Post’s modest-at-best contributions to uncovering the Watergate scandal makes its aging headquarters building especially “significant,” historically. (The newsroom certainly was made famous in All the President’s Men,  the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. A replica of the Post newsroom was built for the movie at a studio in Los Angeles.)

The DCist blog had a bit of fun with the Business Journal report about prospective landmark status for the Post’s headquarters.

The building “has certainly seen its share of history,” the blog noted, “from the Pentagon Papers to the downfall of President Richard Nixon to Janet Cooke’s profile work to that time Dan Zak wrote about August.”

The Post and the New York Times were enjoined by the Nixon administration in 1971 from publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — an injunction the Supreme Court invalidated in a 6-3 decision.

Janet Cooke was the Post reporter whose front-page story about an 8-year-old, third-generation heroin addict won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The newspaper surrendered the Pulitzer following disclosures that Cooke made up the story.

And Zak’s essay about August appeared in the Post last July 31. It included this passage:

“August is for avoiding thought. August is for thinking about August. August is for reading essays assaying the meaning of August’s meaningless.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

  1. [...] He was referring to the supposed effects of the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. [...]

  2. [...] Landmark status for WaPo building? Watergate reporting ought not be a factor [...]

  3. [...] the segment, the show’s host, Chris Wallace flatly and inaccurately asserted that the Post is “the paper that brought down Richard [...]

  4. […] leading preservation group in Washington, DC, has quietly decided against seeking landmark status for the Washington Post building, saying the structure isn’t distinctive enough, […]

  5. […] program notable for how it made Watergate seem tedious and […]

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