W. Joseph Campbell

NYTimes Mag and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 18, 2014 at 3:46 pm

You might think that New York Times Magazine is so closely edited that it would avoid trafficking in media-driven mythsNYT_Twitter_Magazine_400x400.

A passage in the issue due out Sunday gives lie to such an expectation.

The passage indulges in the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal — the mistaken notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

The passage says of Woodward and Bernstein:

“They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.”

That passage appears in an otherwise fascinating account of the unraveling of then-Senator Gary Hart in a sex scandal in 1987. The article, adapted from a forthcoming book by Matt Bai, offers a none-too-pretty portrayal of the journalism that exposed Hart’s dalliance with a model named Donna Rice.

What most interests Media Myth Alert is the article’s almost-casual reference to Woodward and Bernstein and their putative takedown of Nixon.

And that, quite simply, is a wrong-headed, media-centric interpretation of Watergate. It didn’t happen that way — as principals at the Washington Post itself have pointed out from time to time over the years.

In 1997, for example, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, Katharine Graham, declared:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

She added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

In earthier terms, Woodward concurred, saying in an interview in 2004:

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

Woodward on another occasion complained in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program that “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 had some part in a chain of events … that were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

We ought to take Woodward at his word.

But too often, the heroic-journalist trope proves too delicious and too handy to be resisted.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the trope endures because it represents an easily accessible, though quite misleading, synthesis of a scandal that was daunting in its complexity.

There are other important reasons the trope lives on. They include the impeccable good timing of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about their Watergate reporting; the popularity of the cinematic version of their book, and the years-long speculation about the identity of Woodward’s well-placed secret Watergate source who was code-named “Deep Throat.”All_the_President's_Men

The book came out in June 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was approaching its denouement with Nixon’s resignation. It reached the top of the New York Times best-seller list late that month — and remained there until mid-November 1974, three months after Nixon quit.

The cinematic treatment of All the President’s Men was released in April 1976 to mostly rave reviews. The New York Times critic wrote that “not until ‘All The President’s Men,’ the riveting screen adaptation of the Watergate book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, has any film come remotely close to being an accurate picture of American journalism at its best.”

The film focused on the work of Woodward and Bernstein, ignoring and even denigrating the vastly more significant contributions of other forces and agencies in uncovering the scandal — federal prosecutors, federal judges, federal grand jurors, bipartisan congressional panels, and the FBI.

The book and its screen version introduced the shadowy, conflicted character known as “Deep Throat,” whose identity was the subject of not-infrequent speculation over the years. That guessing game had the effect of keeping Woodward and Bernstein “in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been,” I pointed out  in Getting It Wrong.

In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly the second-ranking official at the FBI, identified himself as “Deep Throat.” Felt by then was in his early 90s and suffering dementia.

The book, the movie, and the years-long guessing game combined to help ensure the appeal and the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. As the passage in the Times magazine suggests, the myth lives on, erroneous shorthand for how Nixon fell in Watergate.

WJC

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  1. […] of the Watergate scandal was what brought down Richard M. Nixon’s corrupt president — a mythical interpretation that not even the Post […]

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  5. […] Graham’s comment is not difficult to track down. It’s in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, and I have incorporated the quote in many blog posts at Media Myth Alert, including those here, here, here, and here. […]

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  7. […] But then, to demonstrate how assiduous journalists ought to proceed, the review reaches for the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate and […]

  8. […] Wrong, that the contributions of Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate scandal were modest at best and that their reporting in no way can be thought of as having forced President […]

  9. […] a cover article in 2014, the Times Sunday magazine mentioned Woodward and Bernstein, saying they “actually managed to take down a mendacious American […]

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