W. Joseph Campbell

Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2015 at 6:30 pm

With a bit of routine fact-checking, news organizations usually can sidestep the embarrassment of trading in prominent media myths.

But, no: The narrative power of many media myths often makes them too good to check. And so the myth gets retold.

Consider the latest issue of Britain’s Economist newsmagazine. In an extended report about family-run companies, the Economist offers up the simplistic and ever-appealing myth that Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was brought low in the 1970s by the Washington Post, then owned by Katharine Graham and family.

Economist cover“Under her iron reign,” the Economist says of Graham, “the Washington Post brought down President Nixon with its investigation into the Watergate break-in and challenged the New York Times for the title of America’s most illustrious newspaper.”

The last claim, about challenging the New York Times, might have been true, for a while. But no more. And there’s no way the Post brought down” Nixon.

Katharine Graham herself said as much, at the 25th anniversary of the break-in in June 1972 of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., the scandal’s seminal crime.

Speaking at an event in suburban Virginia, at the original Newseum (humble predecessor to the $450 million edifice on Pennsylvania Avenue), Graham insisted that the Post had not toppled Nixon.

“Sometimes,” she said, “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’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.

Graham was quite right about the processes that forced Nixon’s resignation (he quit in August 1974 in the face of certain impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives).

And over the years, Graham’s views have been echoed by other principals at the newspaper.

Ben Bradlee, the executive editor during and after the Watergate period, likewise rejected the notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down the president, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (Bradlee was referring to the many hours of White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s active role in seeking to block the FBI’s investigation of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in at the DNC headquarters.)

Howard Kurtz, formerly the newspaper’s media reporter, wrote in 2005:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office ….”

And Bob Woodward, one of the newspaper’s lead reporters on Watergate, once told American Journalism Review:

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

It is revealing to consider what critical disclosures the Post missed in its Watergate reporting.

It notably did not disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It likewise failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes. Indeed, as I noted in Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate “were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

Far more important, I wrote, were “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 tapes — the existence of which was revealed by Alexander Butterfield, a former Nixon aide, before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Its latest issue is not the first in which the Economist has indulged in Watergate mythology. In October, shortly after his death, the newsmagazine published a tribute to Bradlee, beneath a headline that read:

“The editor who toppled Nixon.”

That mythical claim appeared in the text of the eulogy as well.

WJC

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