I blogged the other day about the polyglot nature of enduring media-driven myths, notably the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which holds that two Washington Post reporters exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
“In the ’70s, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two journalists for the Washington Post, inspired entire generations by revealing the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Nixon.”
But it can’t really be said that they “revealed” or disclosed the Watergate scandal. Credit for that accomplishment goes largely to federal investigative agencies, bipartisan congressional panels, federal prosecutors and judges, and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Edward Jay Epstein persuasively argued this point in his fine essay in 1976 about Watergate and the news media. He wrote that “the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the [federal] grand jury, and the Congressional committees … unearthed and developed all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate.”
Epstein noted that Bernstein and Woodward, in All the President’s Men, their book about their Watergate reporting, “systematically ignored or minimized” the work of those agencies and institutions.
“Instead,” Epstein wrote, “they simply focus[ed] on those parts of the prosecutors’ case, the grand-jury investigation, and the FBI reports that were leaked to them.”
I address the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, noting that it is “the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand 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,” such as the subpoena-wielding federal authorities.
I further note in Getting It Wrong that the media scholar Jay Rosen has referred to the heroic-journalist construct as “the redemptive tale believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. It is a story of national salvation: truth their only weapons, journalists save the day.”
It’s an endlessly appealing meme: easy to grasp, and not difficult to translate.