W. Joseph Campbell

Still hardy after 40 years: The myth that Woodward, Bernstein ‘brought down’ Nixon

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

Forty years ago today, a Senate select committee convened public hearings into the then-emergent Watergate scandal. The hearings stretched into the summer of 1973 and helped make “Watergate” a household term.

More important, the panel’s inquiry produced the disclosure that President Richard Nixon had secretly taped many of his private conversations at the White House — a revelation that was to prove decisive to the scandal’s outcome.

The most incriminating tape, released under Supreme Court directive in July 1974, captured Nixon plotting a coverup of the FBI’s investigation into the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington in June 1972.

If not for the tapes, Nixon likely would have remained in office — a wounded and hobbled president, but one who would have completed his term.

So the Senate select committee was vital in the array of subpoena-wielding forces that produced evidence that eventually compelled Nixon’s resignation.

And yet, on this anniversary, the simplistic, media myth circulates anew — that two dogged reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The latest to invoke what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate was the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, Carol Rose, who declared in a commentary for Boston’s NPR station, WBUR:

“Nixon himself was brought down by two enterprising young reporters at the Washington Post and a whistleblower by the name of ‘Deep Throat.'”

Rose’s commentary, posted yesterday at the “Cognoscenti” page of WBUR’s Web site, focused on and rightly took issue with the Justice Department’s snooping into phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors in Washington, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut.

“Lest there be any confusion: This is a big deal,” Rose says of the Justice Department’s activity. (She also writes, “Dismantle the free press, and you pretty much dismantle democracy,” which probably is to put it backwards: A free press is a marker and byproduct of democratic government, not an essential precondition.)

But what most concerns Media Myth Alert is the blithely offered claim about the work of Woodward and Bernstein — those “enterprising young reporters” to whom Rose refers.

Simply put, Woodward and Bernstein did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their Watergate reporting for the Post as the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972 did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein were not central to the major disclosures of Watergate.

Notably, they did not reveal the existence of the Nixon’s tapes.

Nor did they describe the extent of the Nixon administration’s coverup of the crimes of Watergate.

Interestingly, authorities at the Post over the years have scoffed at claims that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting took down Nixon.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said 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.”

Woodward, himself, has pooh-poohed the notion, too. He once told an interviewer:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

More delicately, Woodward said in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program 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. Totally absurd.”

As for the “whistleblower” Rose mentions, the shadowy “Deep Throat” source?

He turned out to be W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official motivated not so much by whistleblowing as by high-stakes, inter-office politics.

Felt wanted the FBI top job after the death in May 1972 of the agency’s director, J. Edgar Hoover. Leaking to Woodward (Felt never met Bernstein during Watergate) was a way to pursue those ambitions — and to undercut the official who was appointed acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray.

Felt was no noble figure. As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, he authorized burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground.

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

WJC

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