Media myths sometimes make appearances in odd and baffling ways. As non-sequiturs, even.
“The Washington Post didn’t like [Richard] Nixon — and because of that bad blood we got Watergate.”
As I pointed out soon after Wolff’s observation was posted at Newser.com, such an interpretation is absurd. Nixon and the Post may not have much liked each other, but bad blood had nothing to do with how the Watergate scandal unfolded from 1972-74.
Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 was the culmination not of the Post’s reporting but of the collective investigative efforts by a variety of agencies and entities, including bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon’s release of the telltale evidence of Watergate — the secret tape recordings he had made of private conversations in the Oval Office.
The so-called “smoking gun tape” captured Nixon obstructing justice by approving a plan to divert the FBI investigation into the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters.
If not for evidence of criminality captured on the tapes, Nixon probably would have survived the scandal.
Which brings us to the Christian Science Monitor’s review of Being Nixon: A Man Divided, a new biography by Evan Thomas. The review was posted online the other day and contained this erroneous and baffling statement:
“Even the Woodward and Bernstein stories in The Washington Post that toppled Nixon, bolstered by the subsequent best-selling book and Robert Redford movie (‘All the President’s Men’), are, for many current readers, as remote as D-Day or Pearl Harbor.”
The “toppled” passage is erroneous because the reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Post assuredly did not bring down Nixon. Woodward, in fact, has insisted on that point from time to time: For example, he told an interviewer in 2004:
The “toppled” passage is baffling because Thomas makes no such claim in his book. Indeed, he seems careful not to indulge in media-driven myths. (As I noted at the time at Media Myth Alert, Thomas’ 2010 book, The War Lovers, repeated one of American journalism’s best-known myths, the purported vow of William Randolph Hearst to “furnish the war” with Spain.)
According to the book’s index, “Woodward” is mentioned on six pages in Being Nixon; “Bernstein” appears on four pages. None of those pages contains the mythical claim that their reporting forced Nixon’s resignation. (“Topple” or “toppled” appear not at all in the book.)
So it is rather baffling that the Monitor’s review would state that claim so matter-of-factly. It’s not as if the book’s content led the reviewer astray.
Moreover, it is revealing and instructive to consider what were the most important Watergate articles by Woodward and Bernstein.
I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that as “the scandal slowly unfolded in the summer and fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the burglary [at the Democratic headquarters]. The Post was the first news organization to establish a connection between the burglars and the White House, the first to demonstrate that campaign funds … were used to fund the break-in, the first to implicate the former attorney general John Mitchell in the scandal, and the first to link [senior Nixon aide H.R.] Haldeman to Watergate.”
But those articles, separately or collectively, were hardly enough to threaten Nixon’s presidency. They weren’t “stories … that toppled Nixon.”
In any case, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting notably failed to disclose what were decisive elements of the scandal — the Nixon administration’s efforts to cover up the crimes of Watergate and the existence of the secret White House tapes.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Woodward, Bernstein toppled Nixon? Think again
- ‘War Lovers’: A myth-indulging disappointment
- ‘You might bring down a government’: Sure, that happens
- Who chased Nixon from office? Not Woodward, Bernstein
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- ‘Follow the money’: A made-up Watergate line
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- The Watergate myth: Why debunking matters
- One paragraph, three myths
- Some snarky history from WaPo
- ‘S.F. Examiner’ marks 150th anniversary with dose of media myth
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ receives major shout-out in ‘New Yorker’