Politico yesterday posted an intriguing if flawed account about the file the FBI kept on Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.
Intriguing because of such nuggets as J.Edgar Hoover’s characterization of Bradlee as “a colossal liar.” Hoover was the FBI’s long-serving director who died in 1972.
Flawed because the Politico writeup referred to Bradlee as “a man whose Washington Post brought down a president.”
Hardly: Bringing down Nixon wasn’t the Post’s doing.
Notably, Bradlee pointed out in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal, that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”
Bradlee was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into the breakin of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972. The breakin touched off the scandal — and the country’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.
As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, the notion that the Post and its lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “brought down” Nixon’s corrupt presidency is a fundamental misreading of history that diminishes “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”
Those forces included special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, bipartisan congressional panels, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon must turn over to prosecutors the tapes that captured his guilty participation in the Watergate coverup.
Against this tableau, the contributions of the Post and Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate were minimal, modest at best. Hardly decisive.
Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, essentially said as much in 1997. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said then. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
Woodward concurred, if in earthier terms. He told an interviewer in 2006:
Woodward and Bernstein wrote in their 1974 book, All the President’s Men, that they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before Senate select committee made their existence known.
According to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and they missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- No, Politico: Hearst did not cause the Spanish-American War
- Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee
- Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon
- The Nixon tapes: A pivotal Watergate story that WaPo missed
- Watergate made boring
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosure
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- Media myths, the ‘junk food of journalism’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism