W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo’s ‘myths about Watergate’ article ignores the scandal’s best-known mythical narrative

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

The Washington Post’s commentary section yesterday presented a rundown about five “most persistent” myths of Watergate.

Trouble is, the article unaccountably ignored the scandal’s most prominent and tenacious myth — that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Instead, the article addressed hackneyed claims such as “Watergate was politics as usual; Nixon just got caught” or obscure arguments such as “Nixon could have quieted the scandal by firing employees.” The sort of stuff few people find especially compelling.

Washington Post illustration

What many people do embrace is a claim often repeated in the news media in America and abroad.

And that is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, the mythical go-to narrative that the Post and its intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, unearthed the incriminating evidence that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace in August 1974.

It’s a hardy, media-centric trope that pops up frequently in news outlets both prominent and relatively obscure.

It’s also a narrative rejected by those who ran the Post as the scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher at the time, insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward has concurred, if in earthier terms, telling an interviewer in 2004:

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

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and compelled the testimony and uncovered the evidence that led to Nixon’s resignation.

Against that tableau, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

The “myths of Watergate” article published yesterday made its nearest approach to the heroic-journalist narrative in addressing the notion that Woodward’s high-level secret source, code-named “Deep Throat,” was “pivotal to Nixon’s downfall.”

Of course he wasn’t.

Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 as W. Mark Felt who, for a time, had been second in command at the FBI.

Felt conferred with Woodward periodically in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Washington suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia. Typically, “Deep Throat” passed on to Woodward, or confirmed for him, piecemeal evidence about the scandal as it unfolded. At least that’s the version Woodward offered in The Secret Man, his book about Felt.

A far more prominent Watergate myth about “Deep Throat” is that he advised Woodward to “follow the money” in unlocking the intricacies of Watergate.

Follow the money” may be the single best-known quotation associated with Watergate (rivaled, perhaps, by Nixon’s statement in November 1973 that he was “not a crook”).

“Follow the money” was born of dramatic license, a line written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting.

“Follow the money” was memorably uttered by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie was outstanding in playing a conflicted, twitchy, and tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such assurance and confidence that it seemed to offer a roadmap to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

But even if Woodward had been counseled in real life to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office was not the mishandling of funds raised for his presidential reelection campaign but evidence of his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

That evidence was contained in one of the many audiotapes Nixon secretly made of his conversations at the White House from 1971 to 1973. The existence of the tapes was disclosed not by Woodward and Bernstein but by a former White House official, Alexander Butterfield, in testimony before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Twelve months later, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tell-tale “Smoking Gun” tape to the Watergate special prosecutor, precipitating the president’s resignation.

WJC

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Why Trump-Russia is still not Watergate redux

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Watergate myth on May 14, 2017 at 10:28 pm

We need not take Bob Woodward’s word for it: The murky Trump-Russia suspicions are still far, far from the constitutional crisis that was Watergate, the scandal that took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and sent some 20 of his associates to jail.

Saturday Night Massacre

Even so, exaggerated claims have flourished in the days since President Donald Trump sacked the preening FBI director, James Comey.

Firing Comey was reminiscent — vaguely — of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, when the top two Justice Department officials resigned rather than carry out the president’s order to dismiss Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.

A persuasive case can be made that Comey, unlike Cox, merited dismissal. But Trump’s conduct was puzzling nonetheless: What better way to encourage Trump-Russia suspicions than to fire the head of an agency investigating those suspicions?

Still, the Trump-Russia matter differs from Nixon-Watergate in significant respects, not all of which are well-recognized.

For starters, Watergate originated with a crime — a thwarted burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Arrested in the break-in were five men linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign, including the security coordinator.

The  Trump-Russia matter, however, is a mess of suspicion, of feverish speculation that Trump may have benefited from, encouraged, or somehow participated in Russia’s suspected meddling in the stunning 2016 presidential election.

But the centerpiece crime in Trump-Russia? No one can say. As Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said the other night: “No one has yet to explain to me what the core crime that would be investigated with regards to Russian influence.”

More than six months after the election, it remains unclear what Trump’s campaign did — if anything — to collude with Russian operatives.

And it’s unlikely that Russian interference would have been decisive in tipping the election to Trump. The inept, highly centralized campaign run by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton effectively accomplished that. Trump was the beneficiary of Clinton’s flawed candidacy.

It’s also important to recognize that although Watergate’s outcome may seem now to have been inevitable, bringing about Nixon’s resignation was rather a close call.

Although journalists may love the interpretation, Nixon quit the presidency in 1974 not because of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post.

Nixon resigned after the Supreme Court compelled him to surrender telltale audio tapes that he had secretly made of many of his conversations at the White House. (Woodward, himself, said last week: “The Supreme Court forced Nixon to turn those [tapes] over and that ended the reign.”)

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), absent the audiotapes “Nixon likely would have served out his term.” The tapes were key. They were compelling evidence that captured him, in his own words, approving a scheme to sidetrack the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate burglary.

It is, moreover, important to keep in mind the sui generis character of Watergate. The scandal was sweeping; it went to the heart of America’s political and constitutional system, as Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, noted. Its reach and implications were exceptional, and they will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to duplicate.

WJC

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Journos ‘can, under right circumstances, topple a presidency’: What a myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 1, 2017 at 8:48 am

I ruminated the other day about the many applications of the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the ever-engaging myth that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The New York Times today suggests another use — that the heroic-journalist tale sends a message (presumably to the administration of President Donald Trump) “that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The Times made the outsize claim in a glowing article about Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein spoke about the importance of unfettered media.

The Times account, written by media reporter Michael M. Grynbaum, quoted liberal commentator E.J. Dionne as saying the dinner “’was a line-in-the-sand night, to an extent I didn’t expect.’” Dionne was further quoted as saying that “’having Woodward and Bernstein [speak at the dinner] sends another message’ — that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The last portion was Grynbaum’s paraphrase — which makes it no less a media myth.

Ford became president when Nixon quit

As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

The heroic-journalist tale “has become the most familiar story line of Watergate: ready shorthand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity. 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. …

“But 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” — namely subpoena-wielding investigators who included special federal prosecutors, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon to surrender secretly recorded audio tapes that confirmed his guilty role in Watergate and made certain his resignation in August 1974.

As I’ve noted often at Media Myth Alert, not even principals at the Post during the Watergate period embraced the heroic-journalist myth.

The newspaper’s publisher back then, Katharine Graham, said during 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.”

And the newspaper’s top editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, said on the  “Meet the Press” talk show in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the secret tapes Nixon had made.

Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote in 2005:

“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.”

And Woodward, himself, told an interviewer in 2006 2004:

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

So why does this myth live on? Why is it so irresistible?

The reasons are many, as I discussed in the post the other day.

Among others, the trope has the heady effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in American history. Moreover, the notion that journalists can topple a president is reassuring to practitioners, especially amid the sustained retrenchment in their field. And it’s a way, however misguided, of a way to pay fawning tribute to Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s.

But perhaps most of all, the myth lives on because it’s an easy-to-remember version of what happened in Watergate, the country’s gravest political crisis. Easy to remember, and easy to retell.

Media myths thrive on such simplicity.

WJC

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