W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘defining moment’ in investigative journalism? Wasn’t Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on January 8, 2011 at 9:03 am

The “defining moment” in investigative journalism? Well, that had to be the Watergate reporting of the Washington Post in the early 1970s.

So says Britain’s serious-minded Financial Times in a commentary published yesterday.

The newspaper, however, offered no persuasive evidence for the Post-Watergate claim beyond asserting:

“Investigative reporting has been one of the strongest developments of postwar journalism, illuminating government deceit, corporate fraud and criminal activity. The reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post in the early 1970s on the illegal efforts of Nixon’s White House to destabilise the Democratic party remains its defining moment.”

Was it, really, the “defining moment”? The Post certainly practiced some solid journalism in reporting the unfolding Watergate scandal; its coverage after all won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973.

But the defining moment of investigative reporting?

I argue “no, not at all,” in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which addresses and debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths–among them the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The heroic-journalist meme has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting about the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. (Nixon resigned in 1974, in the face of certain impeachment and conviction for his role in seeking to coverup the Watergate scandal.)

“The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate,” I write in Getting It Wrong. That interpretation, I add, is “ready short-hand for understanding” Watergate, “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 that doesn’t make it the “defining moment” in investigative reporting.

The reporting by the Post certainly did not bring down Nixon’s presidency. To embrace that interpretation is, I write, “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”–including the collective efforts of such subpoena-wielding agencies and entities as the FBI, federal grand juries, special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not even the Post embraces the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

For example, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, Katharine Graham, insisted the Post did topple Nixon. In 1997, at a Newseum program marking the 25th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic headquarters–the Watergate’s seminal crime–Graham declared:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

And in 2005, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, declared in his column:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that Woodward and Bernstein “did not uncover defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars.”

Those aspects of the scandal, Woodward was quoted as saying in 1973, were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

Nor did they disclose the secret audiotaping system that Nixon had installed at the White House; the recordings of his private conversations about Watergate proved decisive in the scandal’s outcome.

If not Watergate, then what was the “defining moment” in investigative reporting–the genre’s most decisive and lasting contribution?

I’ll take up that question tomorrow at Media Myth Alert.

WJC

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