The heroic-journalist narrative of Watergate — the mythical and simplistic notion that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard M. Nixon’s corrupt presidency — is one of those rare tales that commands appeal across the political spectrum.
Conservative commentators sometimes invoke the narrative in bashing the news media as agenda-driven and untrustworthy. Left-wing outlets are known to embrace the meme as an ostensible example of crusading journalism that made a difference.
Both impulses were in evidence this week.
Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, referred to Woodward and Bernstein during his show yesterday, saying they exemplified a tendency in American journalism to lust after career-shattering exposés.
“If you take somebody out,” Limbaugh said, according to a transcript of his program, “if you expose a fraud or a cheat — or if you just take out somebody that you don’t like who has a lot of power — if you as a journalist are instrumental in doing that, then you are considered worthy of advancement in that industry, and it’s best exemplified by Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein and getting Nixon, forcing Nixon to resign.”
Earlier in the week and across the spectrum, the New York Times profiled the Post’s new publisher, Frederick J. Ryan Jr., and took the occasion to recall one his predecessors, Katharine Graham. She was, the Times article noted, the publisher during the Watergate period who “famously stood up to the White House and helped bring down a president.”
Left unsaid by the talk show host and by the Times was just how the work of Woodward, Bernstein, and Graham led to Nixon’s ouster in the Watergate scandal, which broke in June 1972 with a burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Truth is, their work didn’t lead to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. Or much contribute to his fall.
As Ben Bradlee, the Post’s Watergate-era executive editor, once put it in referring to the secret White House tapes that demonstrated the president’s culpability in attempting to cover up the burglary:
“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”
Or as Bob Woodward has said, in earthier terms:
Or as Katharine Graham herself said at the 25th anniversary of the Watergate breakin:
“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.”
Graham was quite right: Unraveling a scandal of the density and complexity of Watergate required, as I wrote in media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, subpoena power and “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.”
And even then, despite the forces arrayed against him, Nixon probably would have survived Watergate and served out his term as president if not for the White House tapes — the disclosure of which was made not by Woodward and Bernstein but by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, during questioning before a Senate select committee investigating the scandal.
The heroic-journalist trope is a simplified version of the scandal that cuts through complexities and intricacies to make Watergate accessible. It offers a narrative that’s appealing, memorable, and easy to grasp.
And it offers something for everyone.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- NYTimes Mag and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- WaPo ‘didn’t like Nixon’ and that’s ‘how we got Watergate’: Huh?
- ‘Follow the money’: A made-up Watergate line
- That made-up Watergate line resonates abroad
- What was Rush Limbaugh talking about?
- Jimmy Carter fumbles Watergate history
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Watergate made boring
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Commentary’ reviews ‘Getting It Wrong’