W. Joseph Campbell

Serving up Watergate, très simple

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 1, 2011 at 9:23 am

The simplified storyline of the Watergate scandal goes this way:

Two young, diligent reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, obtained from their secretive “Deep Throat” source information that incriminated President Richard Nixon and brought about his downfall.

That essentially is the “heroic-journalist” interpretation of Watergate — a reductive and misleading trope to which I devote a chapter in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “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.”

Yahoo!News yesterday served up that très simple version of Watergate in an article about Julian Assange of Wikileaks. The item Yahoo! posted online referred to Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI, saying he “supplied information about the role of Richard Nixon and his top aides in the Watergate scandal to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and came to be known as ‘Deep Throat.’

“That series of leaks ultimately felled the Nixon presidency.”

Uh, no, it didn’t.

What Felt/”Deep Throat” told Woodward did not topple Nixon.

According to All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, Woodward turned to “Deep Throat” “only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.”

(Bernstein, by the way, never met Felt until shortly before Felt’s death in 2008. Felt disclosed in 2005 that he had been the “Deep Throat” source.)

Nixon’s fall was the result of his criminal conduct in attempting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, the simplified, mediacentric interpretation of Watergate “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

To topple a president and roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate required, I write, “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, 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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

Against that tableau of subpoena-wielding investigative authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein fades into relative insignificance.

So why has the heroic-journalist meme become the most familiar storyline of Watergate? Why is it so endlessly appealing?

Complexity-avoidance.

Watergate, after all, was a sprawling scandal. Twenty-one men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his reelection campaign in 1972 were convicted of Watergate-related crimes. Nineteen went to jail.

The heroic-journalist interpretation provides a passage through the intricacies of Watergate, offering what I call “a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Contributing to the durability of the heroic-journalist meme is the cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men, a 1976 film based on Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book.

All the President’s Men the movie focuses on Woodward and Bernstein while mostly ignoring, and even at times denigrating, the contributions of investigative agencies like the FBI.

All the President’s Men has held up quite well in the 35 years since its release. It surely is the most-watched movie ever made about Watergate.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie allows no interpretation other than the work of Woodward and Bernstein brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.

Woodward

Even Woodward has challenged that très simple version.

He declared in an interview several years ago with American Journalism Review:

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

WJC

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