W. Joseph Campbell

Journos ‘can, under right circumstances, topple a presidency’: What a myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 1, 2017 at 8:48 am

I ruminated the other day about the many applications of the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the ever-engaging myth that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The New York Times today suggests another use — that the heroic-journalist tale sends a message (presumably to the administration of President Donald Trump) “that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The Times made the outsize claim in a glowing article about Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, at which Woodward and Bernstein spoke about the importance of unfettered media.

The Times account, written by media reporter Michael M. Grynbaum, quoted liberal commentator E.J. Dionne as saying the dinner “’was a line-in-the-sand night, to an extent I didn’t expect.’” Dionne was further quoted as saying that “’having Woodward and Bernstein [speak at the dinner] sends another message’ — that journalists can, under the right circumstances, topple a presidency.”

The last portion was Grynbaum’s paraphrase — which makes it no less a media myth.

Ford became president when Nixon quit

As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong:

The heroic-journalist tale “has become the most familiar story line of Watergate: ready shorthand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity. How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories. …

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office” — namely subpoena-wielding investigators who included special federal prosecutors, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, which compelled Nixon to surrender secretly recorded audio tapes that confirmed his guilty role in Watergate and made certain his resignation in August 1974.

As I’ve noted often at Media Myth Alert, not even principals at the Post during the Watergate period embraced the heroic-journalist myth.

The newspaper’s publisher back then, Katharine Graham, said during a program at the Newseum in 1997:

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

And the newspaper’s top editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, said on the  “Meet the Press” talk show in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the secret tapes Nixon had made.

Michael Getler, then the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

And Woodward, himself, told an interviewer in 2006 2004:

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

So why does this myth live on? Why is it so irresistible?

The reasons are many, as I discussed in the post the other day.

Among others, the trope has the heady effect of placing journalists at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in American history. Moreover, the notion that journalists can topple a president is reassuring to practitioners, especially amid the sustained retrenchment in their field. And it’s a way, however misguided, of a way to pay fawning tribute to Woodward and Bernstein, both of whom are in their 70s.

But perhaps most of all, the myth lives on because it’s an easy-to-remember version of what happened in Watergate, the country’s gravest political crisis. Easy to remember, and easy to retell.

Media myths thrive on such simplicity.

WJC

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