Could the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting of 40 years ago become a factor in designating the newspaper’s headquarters a local historic landmark?
If so, such a result would represent a serious misreading of history.
The Business Journal described the Post building in downtown Washington as an example “of Modernist architecture” and added, in a passage of especial interest to Media Myth Alert:
“Beyond its age and architectural design, one could also make a case that the Watergate reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation makes it doubly historically significant.”
Doubly historically significant?
But not even principals at the Post have claimed that the newspaper’s Watergate reporting “led to” or otherwise brought about Nixon’s resignation.
As Woodward once told the PBS “Frontline” program, “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.
“The Washington Post stories,” Woodward said, “had some part in a chain of events that … were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”
And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and afterward the Watergate scandal, said at a program at the Newseum in 1997:
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
While it has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate, the heroic-journalist meme has obscured the role of forces far more consequential than the Post in uncovering America’s gravest political scandal.
Those forces, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.
“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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” of the signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
So it’s quite a stretch to argue that the Post’s modest-at-best contributions to uncovering the Watergate scandal makes its aging headquarters building especially “significant,” historically. (The newsroom certainly was made famous in All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. A replica of the Post newsroom was built for the movie at a studio in Los Angeles.)
The DCist blog had a bit of fun with the Business Journal report about prospective landmark status for the Post’s headquarters.
The building “has certainly seen its share of history,” the blog noted, “from the Pentagon Papers to the downfall of President Richard Nixon to Janet Cooke’s profile work to that time Dan Zak wrote about August.”
Janet Cooke was the Post reporter whose front-page story about an 8-year-old, third-generation heroin addict won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The newspaper surrendered the Pulitzer following disclosures that Cooke made up the story.
And Zak’s essay about August appeared in the Post last July 31. It included this passage:
“August is for avoiding thought. August is for thinking about August. August is for reading essays assaying the meaning of August’s meaningless.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Pumping up Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth
- Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters
- Fox News misremembers Watergate and ‘follow the money’
- National Press Club invokes media myths of Watergate
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosure
- Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga?
- No ‘rock-em,’ no ‘sock-em’: What ails WaPo
- Recalling who gave us the ‘manufactured heroism’ of Jessica Lynch
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes Majic