To its credit, the Washington Post over the years has mostly declined to embrace the dominant media myth about the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The dominant narrative is that Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency. It’s one of 10 media-driven myths debunked in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong.
Principals at the Post, among them Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, typically have steered well clear of what I call the hero-journalist myth. Graham, who died in 2001, said in 1997:
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”
Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”
In earthier terms, Woodward, too, has scoffed at the dominant narrative, declaring in an interview in 2004:
But of late, such myth-avoidance has slipped.
In an article last month about the planned demolition of the parking garage where Woodward periodically conferred with a stealthy, high-level source codenamed “Deep Throat,” the Post said the source “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”
The source — who revealed himself years later to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second-ranking official — did no such thing.
As I noted soon after the Post article appeared, if Felt had shared obstruction-of-justice evidence with Woodward — and if the Post had published such information — the uproar would have been so intense that Nixon certainly would have had to resign the presidency long before he did in August 1974.
But it was not until late summer 1974 — several months after Felt’s retirement from the FBI — when unequivocal evidence emerged about Nixon’s attempt to block FBI’s investigation into the foiled burglary in 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.
(I also pointed out that the Post’s erroneous description of the information Felt shared with Woodward was almost word-for-word identical to a passage on the historical marker that was placed outside the garage in 2011. The marker says: “Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.” The Post article said Felt “provided Woodward with information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”)
In any case, the Post hasn’t corrected its mischaracterization about the information Felt passed on to Woodward.
Kelly’s column neither explained nor elaborated on Bernstein’s putative “role in bringing down” Nixon. As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was not decisive in Watergate’s outcome. Their contributions — while glamorized in the cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men — were marginal in forcing Nixon’s resignation.
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 noted in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings that 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 the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, seminal crime of Watergate.
It is not clear whether the recent examples of myth-embrace reflect laziness, inattentive editing, or a gradual inclination to embrace an interpretation of Watergate that is beguiling but misleading. It is an easy-to-remember, simplified version of the history of America’s greatest political scandal.
And it’s wrong.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage to be razed: The inaccurate marker should go, too
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures
- The Nixon tapes: A pivotal Watergate story that WaPo missed
- Woodward, Bernstein toppled Nixon? Think again
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- Who, or what, brought down Nixon
- The journos who saved us
- Watergate and its hardy myths
- Maddow wrongly declares Pentagon ‘made up’ bogus tale about Jessica Lynch’s battlefield heroics
- Maddow cherry-picks to avoid correcting claim about Pentagon, Jessica Lynch
- Check out The 1995 blog
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism