Then the Watergate scandal might never have come to light.
That, in any case, is a variation on the heroic-journalist meme of Watergate, which holds that the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two young reporters for the Washington Post, brought down Richard Nixon and his corrupt presidency.
It’s a claim too sweeping for many to embrace. As I write in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate is a media-driven myth–one that even officials at the Post tend to dismiss.
The variation on the heroic-journalist meme holds that the Post‘s persistent reporting during the summer and early fall of 1972–in the early weeks and months of the scandal–helped keep Watergate from fading completely from public view.
The variation theme was invoked yesterday in a column in the New Britain Herald in Connecticut.
The writer says about Watergate and Nixon’s eventual resignation:
“Sure, a federal judge and the members of Congress had something to do with it — Lowell Weicker made his name nationally at the [Senate] Watergate hearings. But without Woodward and Bernstein digging and writing in the Washington Post, it could all have been pushed under the rug.”
Alas, the writer offers no evidence for his speculative conclusion.
Even so, it’s not an uncommon interpretation.
Howard Simons, the Post‘s managing editor during the Watergate period, once said:
“For months we were out there alone on this story. What scared me was that the normal herd instincts of Washington journalism didn’t seem to be operating. … It was months of loneliness.”
Such characterizations are not entirely accurate, however. As I write in Getting It Wrong:
“The Post may well have led other newspapers on the Watergate story—principally was because Watergate at first was a local story, based in Washington, D.C. But rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972,” while Nixon’s reelection campaign gathered momentum.
In his classic essay on journalism and Watergate, Edward Jay Epstein noted that the Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in calling attention to the scandal.
Nixon’s Democratic challenger for the presidency, George McGovern, often invoked Watergate in campaign appearances during the summer and fall of 1972. At one point, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate scandal, which stemmed from a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
McGovern also termed the break-in “the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler.”
So in its reporting on the emergent scandal, the Post in fact was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.
Woodward and Bernstein were very much not alone in their digging. And the number of entities and institutions that were digging, even in the early days of the scandal, guaranteed that Watergate could not be “pushed under the rug.”