Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, writes scathingly and at length in the latest Newsweek about the phone-hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch’s media operations in Britain and prompted the closing of London’s largest Sunday tabloid, the News of the World.
Inevitably, Bernstein invokes the Watergate scandal of 1972-74– but conveniently skips over the borderline illegal conduct he and his Washington Post colleague, Bob Woodward, engaged in, in asking federal grand jurors to break their oaths of secrecy and discuss Watergate testimony.
“When Bob Woodward and I came up against difficult ethical questions, such as whether to approach grand jurors for information (which we did, and perhaps shouldn’t have), we sought executive editor Ben Bradlee’s counsel, and he in turn called in the company lawyers, who gave the go-ahead and outlined the legal issues in full.”
That story’s a lot messier than Bernstein lets on: The private entreaties to Watergate grand jurors in December 1972 angered the federal judge hearing the Watergate cases and nearly landed the reporters in jail.
As described in All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward’s book about their Watergate reporting, none of the grand jurors was cooperative but the reporters’ overtures were reported to the federal prosecutors, who informed the chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, John J. Sirica.
The judge was livid.
According to All the President’s Men, Edward Bennett Williams, the Post’s top lawyer, went to lengths to persuade Sirica — known as “Maximum John” for the stern sentences he imposed — not to throw the book at the wayward reporters.
“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you fellas,” Williams was quoted as saying in the book. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”
Being sent to jail would have interrupted and may well have ended their reporting on Watergate. (The myths surrounding Bernstein and Woodward’s work are discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.)
It wasn’t as if Bernstein and Woodward and their editors at the Post were oblivious to the hazards of inviting grand jurors to violate their secrecy vows. They were well aware of the risks of what they described in All the President’s Men as “a seedy venture.”
The Post’s editors consulted on the scheme — among them Bradlee, Managing Editor Howard Simons, Metropolitan Editor Harry M. Rosenfeld — all entertained “private doubts” about approaching grand jurors.
The Post city editor, Barry Sussman, was described in All the President’s Men as fearing “that one of them, probably Bernstein, would push too hard and find a way to violate the law.
“Woodward wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself. Bernstein, who vaguely approved of selective civil disobedience, was not concerned about breaking the law in the abstract. It was a question of which law, and he believed that grand-jury proceedings should be inviolate.”
But they went ahead anyway, desperate for leads in the slowly unfolding scandal.
Their overtures to the grand jurors drew a tongue-lashing from Sirica in open court on December 19, 1972.
“I want it understood by the person who approached members of the grand jury that the court regards this matter as extremely serious” and “at least potentially” contempt of court, Sirica said.
The judge, though, did not mention the reporters by name, saying only that the entreaties to grand jurors had been made by “a news media representative.”
Reporters covering the hearing buzzed with speculation as to whom Sirica was referring.
Bernstein and Woodward deflected suggestions that they had made the improper overtures. “We … engaged in our own cover-up,” Woodward was quoted as saying in Alicia Shepard’s Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.
The reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, which came out in 1974 just as Watergate was nearing its climax, that in seeking out the grand jurors, they “had chosen expediency over principle and, caught in the act, their role had been covered up.”
To be sure, their dubious conduct was not in the same league as the rank illegality of News of the World’s phone-hacking.
But Bernstein was more than a little disingenuous in soft-pedaling how he and Woodward solicited information from Watergate grand jurors.
Recent and related:
- ‘News of the World’ closure breaks link to 19th century yellow journalism
- ‘The newspaper that uncovered Watergate’?
- Watergate and its hardy myths
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- ‘Follow the money,’ a made-up Watergate line
- The hero-journalist myth of Watergate
- A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth
- Media myths, the junk food of journalism
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A