The notion that the investigative reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon is, I write in Getting It Wrong, one of the most cherished stories American journalism tells about itself.
“But,” I further write, “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.”
It is, though, quite a hardy and versatile myth.
It’s sometimes casually asserted, as in a column the other day in a suburban Washington newspaper, the Falls Church (Virginia) News-Press. The column-writer flatly declared the Washington Post “brought down a U.S. president by its Watergate investigations in the early 1970s.”
On other occasions, the Watergate myth is asserted with gusto, as it was yesterday at the online site of the French business newspaper Les Echos, in a feature article about Katharine Graham. She was publisher of the Post during the Watergate period and beyond.
Les Echos declared that the Post “played a capital role in the disclosure of the scandal,” adding that Woodward and Bernstein, “after a meticulous investigation, were able to untangle the mysterious business of wiretappings, which led to the White House.”
Les Echos failed to mention that Graham, herself, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon.
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at a program at the Newseum marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
“The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” she insisted.
Woodward concurred, albeit in earthier terms: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”
Nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s White House or his 1972 reelection campaign were convicted of Watergate-related crimes and served time in jail. Nixon resigned in August 1974 to avoid certain impeachment.
As I write in Getting It Wrong:
“To roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”
Even then, I argue, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. The Supreme Court in July 1974 ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes subpoenaed by the special Watergate prosecutor; the recording of June 23, 1972, captured Nixon plotting the cover-up.
Amid the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest.
And certainly not decisive.
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Yet again: Watergate and the Washington Post
- Shoe leather and ‘All the President’s Men’
- If not for the Post’s digging …
- Myths going polyglot: An emblem of hardiness
- 15 movies about journalists: At least 3 boosted myths
- Media myths and their spinoffs: The case of Watergate