W. Joseph Campbell

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Newspaper rant deplores ‘debasement of reality’ but invokes prominent media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2019 at 8:54 am

The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic the other day in deploring “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” declaring that “lies” have become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was a long-form screed alright, which appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It was not unlike many other rants written during the war between the press and President Donald Trump.

Journos didn’t do it

What most interested Media Myth Alert was not so much the hyperventilating as the credulous reference to the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — that reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“The American press didn’t have a spotless record in the past,” the Seattle Times article asserted, adding:

“But more often than not, reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

Uh-huh: “forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion, of course, is to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

But forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

No, the forces essential to rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, bipartisan congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in importance: Indeed, they were marginal to Watergate’s outcome.

And this by no means is a new interpretation.

The first edition of Getting It Wrong came out in 2010.

Five years before that, the Washington Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote:

“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 in 1974, Edward Jay Epstein had cast a highly skeptical look at the notion the Washington Post was central to Watergate’s unraveling.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, the best-selling book about their Watergate reporting, Epstein wrote:

“The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s autobiographical account of how they ‘revealed’ the Watergate scandals. …  In keeping with the mythic view of journalism, however, the book never describes the ‘behind-the-scenes’ investigations which actually ‘smashed the Watergate scandal wide open’ — namely the investigations conducted by the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the grand jury, and the Congressional committees.”

So why does the hero-journalist myth persist? Why is it so often invoked, and credulously so, despite having been repeatedly debunked over the years?

It lives on for several reasons, including the need to support claims that the news media are decisive actors in American culture and political life.

But as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational” and “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

What’s more, I noted, media myths tend to be “self-flattering, offering heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

WJC

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