W. Joseph Campbell

The hero-journalist trope: Watergate’s go-to mythical narrative

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s produced America’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

And yet, because Watergate was such an intricate thicket of lies, deceit, and criminality — and because it unfolded more than 40 years ago — a sure understanding of the scandal can be defiantly elusive. Collective memory about the many lines of investigation that unwound Watergate and forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency has inevitably grown faint.

What endures is the heroic-journalist trope, Watergate’s dominant popular narrative, which rests on the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s criminal misconduct and forced his resignation. It has become the go-to explanation about how Watergate was exposed, and it is an endlessly appealing interpretation.

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

Which takes us to a movie review posted today at the online site of WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C.

The review discusses the perversely named Truth, a new motion picture that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used fraudulent documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. (Because it stars Robert Redford in Rather’s role, Truth has invited comparisons — not all of them favorable — to All the President’s Men, the 1976 film in which Redford played Woodward of the Post.) 

The WTOP reviewer has little truck with the Truth story line, saying it “would have been far better … to paint the characters as fallen figures who admit they screwed up, rather than misunderstood scapegoats who were taken down by The Man.”

Fair enough. But then, to demonstrate how assiduous journalists ought to proceed, the review reaches for the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate and declares:

“If Woodward and Bernstein ran the story too early — before they had actual proof from reliable sources — Nixon would have stayed in office, the Watergate would simply be a fancy hotel, and ‘All the President’s Men’ would not exist.”

The reference to “the story” is puzzling, given that the reporting of Watergate went far beyond a single article in the Washington Post. The scandal produced extensive news reporting over many months, from the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington to the resignation of Nixon in August 1974, following disclosures that he had approved a plan to cover up the break-in.

And to assert that “Nixon would have stayed in office” if not for Woodward and Bernstein is to be decidedly in error — and to indulge in a powerful myth of American journalism.

It is a tempting trope, to be sure. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation offers “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Not even Woodward has embraced the heroic-journalist myth. He once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

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

And in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

He’s right: Woodward and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their reporting did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein did not break the most crucial stories of Watergate.

They did not, for example, disclose the extent to which the Nixon administration covered up of the crimes of Watergate. Nor did they reveal the existence of the secret White House audio tapes, the contents of which were decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The so-called “Smoking Gun” tape captured Nixon’s approving a plan on June 23, 1972, to divert the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. The tape’s release sealed the president’s fate.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his term.

WJC

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