News that Jeff Bezos is ousting the publisher of the Washington Post about a year after he purchased the newspaper prompted recollections of the Post’s better days — recollections both exaggerated and erroneous.
It was the Post’s onetime archrival, the New York Times, that indulged today in the most excessive overstatement.
In its initial online report about the departure of Katharine Weymouth as publisher, the Times stated that “she was the last major link to the Graham family, which had become a Washington institution and had presided over The Post’s most glorious era — the decades surrounding the Watergate scandal, in which it was instrumental in forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.”
While Weymouth’s departure, effective October 1, is intriguing — it means that Bezos, the multibillionaire founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is imposing his will on what has become in recent years a thin and faded newspaper — Media Myth Alert is most interested in the mischaracterization of the Post’s role in Watergate.
The newspaper assuredly was not, as the Times claimed, “instrumental in forcing the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.”
The Post’s investigative reporting on Watergate linked Nixon’s reelection committee to the seminal crime of Watergate, the foiled burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The Post also implicated the likes of John Mitchell, the former attorney general who was Nixon’s campaign manager, in the scandal.
Such reports helped the Post win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But they were hardly enough to threaten Nixon’s presidency.
Unseating Nixon, I further noted in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces 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 survived the scandal were it not for the audiotapes he surreptitiously made of many conversations in the Oval Office. Only when compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the tapes that clearly depicted him as taking an active role in plotting the coverup of the Watergate breakin.
Interestingly, it was not reporters for the Post but investigators for a select committee of the U.S. Senate who learned of and forced the disclosure about the existence of the tapes. It was, in other words, a pivotal Watergate story that the Post missed.
The Post lagged on other decisive Watergate stories, notably the existence of the White House coverup of the breakin.
That story was published October 10, 1972, beneath the headline, “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats.” It claimed — erroneously — that the FBI had determined some 50 political saboteurs had traveled the country, disrupting Democratic candidates mounting challenges to Nixon. Internal FBI memoranda disputed key elements of the Post’s story as conjecture or “absolutely false.”
So “modest at best” aptly characterizes the Post’s contributions in unraveling Watergate.
The newspaper most certainly did not bring down Nixon.
The departure of Weymouth, and her replacement by Frederick J. Ryan Jr., once an official in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, was accompanied by another interesting sidebar: That of Bezos’ refusal to discuss the move with a reporter for the Post.
As Huffington Post observed:
“Bezos kept up a dubious practice of refusing comment to the journalists he pays when it was announced … that he had replaced the Post’s publisher, Katharine Weymouth, with former Politico executive and Reagan administration official Fred Ryan. … Anybody expecting openness and transparency from Bezos, however, would be disappointed, as the Post’s own story made clear.”
The Post’s article said the statement by Bezos announcing the change in publishers “‘did not give reasons for the change or its timing. Bezos declined to comment through a spokesman.”
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Confronting the mythology of Watergate
- Watergate made boring
- WaPo now embracing the dominant myth of Watergate?
- WaPo, Bezos and owning up to errors ‘quickly and completely’
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- WaPo ‘didn’t like Nixon–and that’s how we got Watergate: Huh?
- Yet again: Watergate and the Washington Post
- A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth
- ‘Good narrative trumps good history’
- Check out The 1995 blog
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism