W. Joseph Campbell

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate and its applications

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 28, 2017 at 3:26 pm

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — pops up often, and in the service of any number of objectives.

Nixon got Nixon

It is a tale of supposed high accomplishment inspiring to journalists, especially so at a time of sustained retrenchment in their field.

It’s a trope with the intoxicating effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in U.S. history.

And it’s a way of paying obsequious tribute to the Washington Post, much as Sky News in Britain did not long ago.

“The Washington Post is one of the world’s great newspapers,” a fawning essay at the Sky’s online site declared, adding:

“Thanks to its investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it can make the unique claim of having brought down an American president — the corrupt Richard Nixon.”

It’s not too difficult to understand why such an extravagant claim circulates so widely.

After all, it is tidy, handy if  terribly misleading shorthand about the sprawling Watergate scandal of 1972-74: It sweeps away complexities of Watergate, rendering the scandal and its thicket of lies and criminality rather easy to grasp. After all, as I noted in the recently published, expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate scandal “has grown so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.”

The heroic-journalist myth has become a reductive substitute.

The heroic-journalist interpretation also is a way of saluting Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s. Both, in fact, will highlight this weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where they are to hand out awards and offer remarks about the importance of investigative reporting. (Not surprisingly, their pending joint appearance has stirred fresh retelling of the heroic-journalist myth. The Washington Examiner said the other day, for instance, that Woodward and Bernstein’s “coverage of the Watergate break-in led eventually to former President Richard Nixon’s resignation.”)

In their younger days, Woodward and Bernstein sneered at the correspondents’ association dinner, describing it in All the President’s Men, their 1974 book about Watergate, as “a formal, overdone, alcohol-saturated event, attended by all those with power — or pretensions to power — in the media and government.” Woodward and Bernstein went anyway, in 1973, to collect a couple of prizes.

So over-the-top is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate that not even principals at the Post when the scandal played out — notably the publisher, Katharine Graham, and her top editor, Ben Bradlee — embraced the notion.

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Also that year, Bradlee said on the Sunday talk show “Meet the Press” that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

He was referring to the White House audio tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to divert the FBI investigation into the botched burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972. The breakin touched off the scandal.

And in earthier terms, Woodward concurred, telling an interviewer in 2006:

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

Quite.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Advertisements
  1. […] ruminated the other day about the many applications of the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the ever-engaging myth […]

  2. […] it: The murky Trump-Russia suspicions are still far, far from the constitutional crisis that was Watergate, the scandal that took down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency and sent some 20 of his […]

  3. […] a hardy, media-centric trope that pops up frequently in news outlets both prominent and relatively […]

  4. […] referring to Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” was an early expression of the heroic-journalist interpretation that has long since became the dominant narrative of […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: