The National Journal offered an intriguing discussion yesterday about what it called “the background briefing racket,” in which government officials meet with reporters to “spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all ‘on background'” — meaning they aren’t linked by name to what they said.
It is a racket that allows officials to evade accountability.
But what most interested Media Myth Alert was this passage in the article, written by veteran Washington journalist Ron Fournier:
“When reporters call the shots, anonymous sources are vital to uncovering government secrets and wrongdoing (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office).”
Woodward and Bernstein chased Nixon out of office?
As Woodward, himself, has said:
And as I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the complexity and dimension of Watergate “required 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.
“Even then, 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 approving a plan to deflect the FBI’s investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the foiled burglary in mid-June 1974 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The Post did not disclose the existence of the White House tapes. Nor did the Post reveal the White House coverup of the crimes of Watergate.
So to assert, even in an off-handed way, that Woodward and Bernstein were pivotal or central to chasing Nixon from the White House is to misread history and indulge in one of American journalism’s most tenacious media myths.
A couple of other points about the parenthetical phrase, “Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used Mark Felt and other whistleblowers to chase Richard Nixon out of office.”
Bernstein never met Mark Felt during Watergate scandal, nor for many years afterward. Felt was the secret source and senior FBI official known as “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward periodically conferred in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Virginia.
But not until 2008, late in Felt’s life, was Bernstein introduced to him.
Also, Felt was no whistleblower, not in a high-minded, altruistic sense. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out almost 10 years ago in a review of Woodward’s book about Felt, Watergate represented “the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own.” Meaning Felt’s own kind of “background briefing racket.”
Max Holland’s book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, argues persuasively that Felt was no principled whistleblower.
He was driven by the internal struggle at the FBI to replace J. Edgar Hoover, who died in May 1972. Felt in leaking to Woodward sought to undercut the acting director, L. Patrick Gray III, and thereby enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position.
Self-advancement was his principal motive. He failed, and retired in 1973.
It deserves mentioning that Felt was no hero, no noble figure.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, Felt authorized burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground. He was convicted in 1980 of felony charges related to the break-ins, but was pardoned the following year by President Ronald Reagan.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Still hardy after 40 years: The myth that Woodward, Bernstein ‘brought down’ Nixon
- No, Politico: WaPo didn’t bring down Nixon
- Katharine Graham, the ‘Economist,’ and bringing down Nixon
- Media myth, adulation figure in media tributes to Ben Bradlee
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage to be razed: The inaccurate marker should go, too
- Good call: WaPo building no landmark
- A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth of Watergate
- The ‘defining moment in investigative journalism’? Wasn’t Watergate
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- Fact-checking Watergate advice that ‘worked’
- Check out The 1995 Blog
- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’