W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Watergate myth’ Category

The media myths of Watergate: Part One

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 17, 2012 at 6:00 am

This is the first of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee. This installment discusses the tenacious myth
that reporting by the 
Washington Post brought down
Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency
.

For years, the dominant narrative of Watergate has been that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post revealed the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That’s also a media-driven myth — the heroic-journalist myth, as I called it in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong.

I note in Getting It Wrong that the media-centric heroic-journalist construct “has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate,” serving as “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

The misdeeds of Watergate were many. Twenty men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for crimes such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy.

Three powerful and related factors have propelled and solidified the heroic-journalist trope in the popular consciousness.

One factor was Woodward and Bernstein’s engaging book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, which came out in June 1974, just as the scandal was nearing culmination.

As Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate’s preeminent historian, has written, All the President’s Men “offered a journalistic brief to the nation as it prepared to understand and judge for itself” the growing evidence of Nixon’s guilt.

All the President’s Men was quite the success, holding the top spot on the New York Times’ non-fiction best-seller list for 15 weeks — through the climatic days of Watergate and beyond.

“The book’s impeccable timing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, served to “promote an impression that Woodward and Bernstein were central to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.”

The book that helped promote a myth

That impression was deepened in the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which was released to great fanfare and rave reviews in April 1976.

The movie placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling — and minimized or ignored the far more decisive contributions of subpoena-wielding investigators.

Indeed, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimension and complexity required the collective 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, as I write in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the recordings, which captured him approving a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into Watergate’s seminal crime, the break-in June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The third factor in pressing the heroic-journalist myth firmly into the popular consciousness was the 30-year guessing game about the identity of Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source whom a Post editor code-named “Deep Throat.”

Speculation about the identity of “Deep Throat” came not infrequently and was often prominent. The guessing game offered periodic reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage. The speculation effectively kept Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise might have.

In 2005, W. Mark Felt, formerly second in command at the FBI, disclosed that he had been the “Deep Throat” source — giving rise to yet another round of reminiscing about the heroic journalists  of Watergate.

Such preening was misplaced, of course.

As Max Holland, author of Leak, a recent book about Watergate and “Deep Throat,” has aptly put it:

“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Posts [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”

Interestingly, principals at the Post have periodically scoffed at and rejected the heroic-journalist narrative.

For example, Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and after Watergate, said at a program in 1997 marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:

“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 Woodward  complained in 1996 that “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.”

Indeed. To explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to simplify and misunderstand the scandal. It is to misread history and indulge in a beguiling media-driven myth.

WJC

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National Press Club invokes media myths of Watergate

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 30, 2012 at 5:45 am

The National Press Club indulged in a couple of tenacious media myths about Watergate in announcing the other day it was giving its top award to Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on what was the country’s greatest political scandal.

In its statement that Woodward will receive this year’s Fourth Estate Award, the Press Club declared that his “work on the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of an American president” — an interpretation that not even Woodward embraces.

He once told the PBS “Frontline” program that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down [President] Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And on another occasion, Woodward declared more bluntly:

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

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the simplified notion that Woodward’s Watergate reporting for the Post led to Nixon’s resignation serves to diminish “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

To roll up a scandal of the dimension of Watergate required, I write, “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.

“Even then, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House” — recordings the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had to surrender.

So the notion that Woodward’s reporting for the Post was decisive to Watergate’s outcome is absurd.

So, too, is the subsidiary myth that Watergate reporting — and the cinema’s depiction of the Post’s coverage in All the President’s Men – made the field seem so alluring  that enrollments in college journalism programs surged as a result.

The Press Club statement about Woodward’s award invokes that myth, too, asserting that “enrollment in journalism departments rose in the post-Watergate era, especially after ‘All the President’s Men’ was made into a movie.” It was based on a book by the same title, which was written by Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, separate scholarly studies have debunked the notion of Watergate’s  propellant effect on college enrollments in journalism.

One study, conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995, said that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

So why are these Watergate myths so appealing, and so tenacious, that even the National Press Club embraces them?

One reason is that they’re simplistic, easy-to-remember narratives that locate the news media heroically at the heart of unraveling America’s greatest political scandal.

Indulging in myths such as the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate also offers a subtle way of investing the Press Club award with even greater distinction.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong, the tale about 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.”

It’s a myth that’s no doubt too resilient, too media-centric, and too widely applicable ever to eradicate.

WJC

Woodward and Bernstein: The ‘only superstars newspapers ever produced’?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2012 at 5:11 am

The 40th anniversary of the debut of the Watergate scandal falls in two months and we’re certain read many effusive tributes to the Washington Post’s reporters who often –  but wrongly — are said to have exposed the scandal and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

It’s a safe bet that many of the tributes to the Post and its Watergate reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will be exaggerated and erroneous.

Take, for example, this passage, which appeared over the weekend in a column in the Toronto Sun:

“The only superstars newspapers ever produced were Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post investigative team who broke the Watergate story that led to the downfall of U.S. president Richard Nixon.”

Maybe they were the only superstars of newspaperdom, although that claim might provoke an argument from the committee at New York University that recently selected 100 outstanding U.S. journalists of the past 100 years. (The list included several dubious entries, such as the self-important Christiane Amanpour of CNN; photojournalist and probable fraud Robert Capa; mythmaking writer David Halberstam, and broadcast journalism’s flawed saint, Edward R. Murrow.)

Woodward and Bernstein made NYU’s rather predictable list, too.

If they are newspapering’s lone superstars, their self-promotion had a lot to do with it.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, came out in June 1974, about two months before Nixon’s resignation.

The book, a months-long best-seller, had been written with the movies in mind; the cinematic version of All the President’s Men came out in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

But more important than Woodward and Bernstein’s superstar status is the claim in the Sun’s column that they “broke the Watergate story.”

They did no such thing.

The signal crime of Watergate — the June 1972 burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — wasn’t broken by the Post. The break-in was interrupted by police and within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex.

The story in the Post about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and its opening paragraph made quite clear that details were from investigators:

“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

Watergate reporting by the Post did not expose the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in or the payment of hush money to the burglars, either.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter about the media myths of Watergate, Woodward was quoted in 1973 as saying that those crucial aspects of the scandal were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward: 'held too close'

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system, which was decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

The tapes secretly made by President Richard Nixon captured him approving a plan in June 1972 intended to thwart the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.

That contents of that tape — the so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and directly led to his resignation in August 1974.

The White House taping system had been disclosed 11 months before, not by Woodward and Bernstein but by investigators of the Senate select committee on Watergate.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein later claimed to have had a solid lead about the taping system.

In All the President’s Men, the book, Woodward recalled having spoken with Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the lead.

Bradlee advised:

“I wouldn’t bust one” in checking it out.

Had they followed the lead, Woodward and Bernstein may well have broken a pivotal story about Watergate.

But they didn’t.

WJC

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Did Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ know he was ‘Deep Throat’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 15, 2012 at 11:48 am

Felt: Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

Barry Sussman, the Washington Post’s Watergate editor in the early 1970s, raises a provocative question about the newspaper’s famous high-level source, W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official when the Watergate scandal was unfolding.

Did Felt realize that the Post regarded him as “Deep Throat,” as a vital source in reporting the unfolding Watergate scandal? Sussman asks.

The question is pertinent and intriguing, Sussman writes in a recent commentary at the Nieman Watchdog blog, because Felt as a source offered “so little” to Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate.

And yet it is widely believed Felt offered vital information to Woodward about the emergent scandal.

Although Sussman doesn’t specifically address it, the implication of his observation is that “Deep Throat” may have been more composite than a single source — a literary device to infuse drama in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Post colleague Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting.

It has long been suspected, though never confirmed, that “Deep Throat” was a composite.

Adrian Havill, the author of Deep Truth, a deliciously scathing biography of Woodward and Bernstein, speculated that “Deep Throat” was “a hybrid of three or four main sources.”

Edward Jay Epstein, in his fine 1976 essay about the Post and Watergate, stated he believed “Deep Throat” was “a composite character.”

More recently, James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, speculated in a book review that “‘Deep Throat’ was more than just Mark Felt.”

Prodded by his family, Felt came forward in 2005 and pronounced himself the source who had been “Deep Throat.” Woodward soon confirmed Felt’s self-disclosure.

But Felt was frail and suffering from dementia. He was forgetful and seldom able to carry on prolonged interviews. (Woodward quoted Felt’s daughter as saying in 2002 that Felt “goes in and out of lucidity.”)

Sussman, as he has on other occasions, asserts that “Deep Throat wasn’t an important source at all” to the Post.

“He was nice to have around, helpful on occasion,” Sussman writes, adding that Woodward and Bernstein “have blown up Felt’s importance for almost four decades or nodded in assent when others did….”

Sussman acknowledges he didn’t know that Felt was supposedly “Deep Throat” before 2005. He also notes that Felt, who died in 2008, often denied having been “Deep Throat.”

And that’s true. In a memoir published in 1979, Felt insisted: “I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!”

Years later, Felt told a Connecticut newspaper that had he been “Deep Throat,” he “would have done it better.”

Felt may have been a liar. Or, as Sussman says, he may not have fully understood that he was considered the source whom the Post referred to as “Deep Throat.”

Sussman’s commentary was prompted by a recent book titled Leak, which claims that Felt was a crucial if sometimes duplicitous source for Woodward on Watergate. (Bernstein, by the way, met Felt only weeks Felt’s death.)

Sussman asserts that Leak “is way off base when it comes to the Post.”

The author of Leak, Max Holland, “accepts a key part of the Watergate myth that really is hokum – that Deep Throat was an important, sine qua non source for the Washington Post,” Sussman writes.

“He not only accepts it; it is his basic premise. This is where his book runs into trouble.”

So why does all this matter now, nearly 40 years after the Watergate scandal began unfolding?

It matters because the mystery of “Deep Throat” was central to establishing the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the enduring if misleading notion that Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged reporting, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The identity of “Deep Throat,” as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, was the subject of a 30-year, post-Watergate guessing game — a guessing game that “provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

Those reminders helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which to this day endures as the dominant thought misleading narrative about the country’s greatest political scandal.

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Assessing the propellant effect: Was Watergate a powerful stimulant to journalism?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 10, 2012 at 4:34 am

The April number of Vanity Fair brushes against an entrenched media myth in declaring that the cinematic depiction of the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting stimulated great interest in careers in journalism.

Vanity Fair, April 2012

Alas,Vanity Fair offered no data or documentation to support its claim.

Instead, the magazine referred broadly to “the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein in All the President’s Men,” saying the movie which came out in 1976 “prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism.”

Legions?

Anecdotally, it’s not uncommon to hear that the movie, or Woodward and Bernstein’s award-winning reporting for the Post, did inspire boomers to become journalists.

But beyond impression and anecdote, what supports the claim that Watergate reporting — or All the President’s Men — was a powerful stimulant for career-seeking in journalism?

Not much, as it turns out.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter on what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was a propellant.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies, in that they would have captured heightened interest in careers in the profession. If Watergate and All the President’s Men inspired broad interest in careers in journalism, evidence of the stimulus should be apparent in surging in college enrollments.

But the evidence is not there.

A study conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 found that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs also wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

I write in Getting It Wrong that the notion that Watergate reporting made journalism appealing and sexy endures “because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward— too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

The presumed stimulus on journalism is an appealing yet simplistic story, easy to grasp and easy to understand.

And such characteristics — easy to grasp, easy to understand — often are propellants. Propellants of media-driven myths.

WJC

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Carl Bernstein, naive and over the top

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Rupert Murdoch, the global media mogul beset by scandal at his British tabloids, may be the greatest menace to press freedom in world.

So says Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate reporter for the Washington Post, in an over-the-top characterization of Murdoch and what he calls Murdoch’s “gutter instincts.”

Bernstein: Murdoch a press freedom threat

Bernstein was referring to the police and parliamentary investigations into practices at Murdoch’s London tabloids, inquiries that have led to the arrests of numerous employes and the closure last summer of the Sunday News of the World.

The suspected misconduct in Britain also may have consequences for Murdoch’s News Corp. under U.S. anti-corruption laws.

Bernstein, a frequent and frankly sanctimonious critic of Murdoch since the scandals broke in London last year, declared in a recent interview on CNN:

“It’s really ironic that the greatest threat to freedom of the press in Great Britain today, and around the world today perhaps, has come from Rupert Murdoch because of his own excesses.”

What a foolish, misleading, and naive statement: The “greatest threat to freedom of the press …  around the world today perhaps” is Rupert Murdoch.

Sure, Murdoch’s hard-ball tactics and raunchy media outlets are offensive to polite company.

But the 80-year-old mogul is scarcely the world’s leading menace to press freedom. To suggest that he is is to insult the nearly 180 journalists who are in jail because of their work in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The true contenders for the epithet of the world’s leading press-freedom menace are many, and include the ayatollahs in Iran.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran is the world’s leading jailer of journalists: Forty-two of the 179 journalists behind bars in late 2011 were imprisoned in Iran.

Journalists are in jail typically because their reporting in traditional or online media offended power-wielding authorities or violated censorship laws.

In Iran, CPJ points out, the “authorities seem intent on silencing any independent or critical voices.”

Bernstein’s naive remark also ignores Eritrea and China, where, respectively, 28 and 27 journalists were in jail in late 2011, according to CPJ.

The organization notes that other journalists “may languish” in Chinese jails “without coming to the notice of news organizations or advocacy groups.”

Bernstein’s comment about Murdoch likewise ignores the Castro regime in Cuba, which long has been a jailer of journalists. As many as 29 dissident journalists were arrested in 2003 in a sweeping crackdown on dissent. The last of them was released in April last year.

While CPJ counted no Cuban journalists in jail in late 2011, the organization says authorities there “continue to detain reporters and editors on a short-term basis as a form of harassment.”

Bernstein’s comment also ignored the Stalinist regime in North Korea, which ranks dead last in the annual Freedom House ranking of press freedom in the world.

Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes democratic governance, assesses levels of press freedom in more than 190 countries and territories on a scale of zero to 100 points. The more points, the worse the ranking.

Finland ranked first, with 10 points. The United States and Britain were rated “free,” with 17 points and 19 points, respectively.

North Korea ranked last, with 97 points.

The regime in Pyongyang “owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information,” Freedom House noted, adding that all journalists “are members of the ruling party, and all media outlets are mouthpieces for the regime.”

His recent remarks about Murdoch’s threat to press freedom were the latest of Bernstein’s over-the-top characterizations of the mogul whose media and entertainment company has holdings around the globe.

As the tabloid scandal in Britain exploded last summer, prompting the closure of the News of the World, Bernstein likened the misconduct to Watergate, the  unprecedented U.S. constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974.

But Watergate was sui generis. The scandal not only toppled Nixon but sent to jail 19 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

What’s more, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting by Bernstein and Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward was neither central to, nor decisive in, bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

WJC

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‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on ‘One Hour of Hope’

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I recently was on “One Hour of Hope,” a satirically named radio show in Gainesville, Florida, to speak about several of the media-driven myths debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.

Among them are the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, and the battlefield derring-do misattributed to Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War.

The host of “One Hour of Hope,” Doug Clifford, noted at the outset of the interview that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal’s signal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

I am sure the anniversary will give rise  to a resurgence of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, which holds that the dogged investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the scandal and brought about President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

That media myth has become the dominant narrative of Watergate, I noted during the radio interview, which aired on WSKY-FM.

The persistence of that misreading narrative, I said, can be traced to All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book about their Watergate reporting, and especially to the 1976 movie by the same title.

The movie, by focusing on the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein, projects the notion that the reporters, with help from a the stealthy, high-level source code-named “Deep Throat,” unearthed the evidence that forced Nixon to quit.

That, I said, is a very simplistic interpretation, “a serious misreading of history” that ignores the far more powerful forces and factors that combined to uncover evidence of Nixon’s culpability.

Those forces, I noted, were typically subpoena-wielding and included committees of both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, the FBI, and a federal judge in Washington named John Sirica.

(Interestingly, the Washington Post, in its obituary of Sirica, said the judge’s “persistence in searching for the facts while presiding over the Watergate cases led to President Nixon’s resignation.”)

The myth of the “Cronkite Moment” represents another serious misreading of history, I said.

Clifford summarized the purported “Cronkite Moment,” that President Lyndon Johnson, in reaction to the CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite’s pessimistic assessment of the Vietnam War, said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

I noted that versions of what the president said vary markedly and also include:

  • “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
  • “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
  • “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the war.”

(Version variability of such magnitude, I write in Getting It Wrong, is a revealing marker of a media-driven myth.)

I noted in the interview that there’s no evidence Johnson saw Cronkite’s television report about Vietnam when it aired February 27, 1968. At the time, the president was attending a birthday party for Governor John Connally on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Nor is there any credible evidence that Cronkite’s reporting about Vietnam influenced  Johnson’s decision, announced in late March 1968, not to seek reelection.

Clifford asked about reporting of the Jessica Lynch case, and I said the bogus tale of her battlefield heroics was largely due to “sloppy reporting by the Washington Post.”

I described the newspaper’s electrifying report, published April 3, 2003, that cited otherwise unidentified “U.S. officials” in saying Lynch had fought fiercely in the ambush of Army unit in Iraq, that she had kept firing at Iraqi attackers even as she suffered gunshot and stab wounds.

But none of that proved true. Lynch fired not a shot in the attack. She was wounded not in the firefight with the Iraqis but in the crash of her Humvee as it tried to flee the ambush.

I also noted in the interview how a “false narrative that the military made up the story” has come to define the Lynch tale.

One of the reporters on the Post’s botched story, I pointed out, has said that the Pentagon wasn’t the newspaper’s source, and also has said that far “from promoting stories about Lynch, the military didn’t like the story.”

The false narrative, I added, has had the additional effect of obscuring recognition of the heroics of Donald Walters, a cook-sergeant who apparently performed the heroics deeds wrongly attributed to Lynch.

Walters laid down covering fire as Lynch and others in their unit sought to escape. He was captured when he ran out of ammunition, and soon afterward executed.

Clifford said his show’s title, “One Hour of Hope,” is a satiric gesture; his once-weekly, 60-minute program leans left while much of the rest of the station’s talk-show content is conservative in political orientation.

WJC

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‘Follow the money’ and the power of cinema

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2012 at 9:17 am

No film about the Watergate scandal has been viewed by more people than All the President’s Men, the cinematic paean to the Washington Post and the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

And no single line from All the President’s Men has proved more memorable and quotable than “follow the money.”

The line is so compelling that it’s often thought that “follow the money” was genuine and vital advice offered by the stealthy, high-level source whom the Post code-named “Deep Throat.”

Except that it wasn’t genuine advice.

Follow the money” was invented for the movie.

The line was spoke by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men. (The real “Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 to have been W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official.)

Although it is fundamentally a contrivance, “follow the money” is granted no small measure of reverence, as suggested by a commentary posted the other day at a blog of London’s Guardian newspaper.

The commentary in its opening paragraph declared :

“The famous advice of Deep Throat to Woodward and Bernstein in the dark underground car park during the Watergate investigation applies to the world of politics as much as it does to investigative journalism. ‘Follow the money,’ the FBI agent Mark Felt is said to advised the two Washington Post reporters.”

“Deep Throat” the source met Woodward a half-dozen times in 1972 and 1973 in a car park — a parking garage — in the Rosslyn section of Arlington, Va. That’s true.

But “Deep Throat”/Felt was exclusively Woodward’s source. Bernstein met Felt only a few weeks before Felt’s death in 2008.

And Felt never advised Woodward to “follow the money.” That he did is cinema-induced pseudo reality.

Not only that, but Felt as “Deep Throat” wasn’t all that vital to the Post’s reporting on Watergate, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

We know that from Barry Sussman, the Post’s lead editor on Watergate, who wrote in 2005:

“Deep Throat was nice to have around, but that’s about it. His role as a key Watergate source for the Post is a myth, created by a movie and sustained by hype for almost 30 years.”

Note the passage, “created by a movie.”

All the President’s Men is more than an engaging, mid-1970s film that has aged admirably well. As Sussman noted, the movie certainly helped propel the myth of “Deep Throat” — and make famous “follow the money.”

The film — which the Post once described as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes” — also was central in promoting and solidifying the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist myth is the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

Which is an interpretation of Watergate that not even the Post embraces.

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

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

But it’s clear, I write in Getting It Wrong, that the cinema “helped ensure the myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

Indeed, what could be more straightforward and understandable than a story featuring two young reporters guided by a shadowy source who, oracle-like, advises them to “follow the money”and helps them bring down a crooked president?

It’s Watergate simplified, Watergate made easy.

But it’s also a far-fetched and distorted version of America’s greatest political scandal.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2011

In Anniversaries, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 31, 2011 at 4:45 am

Reviewing the year in media-mythbusting reveals a number of memorable posts. Here are the Media Myth Alert five top writeups of 2011, with a roster of other mythbusting posts of note:

Krakauer retreats from Lynch-source claim (posted November 11): This post revealed author Jon Krakauer’s quiet retreat from claims in a 2009 book that Jim Wilkinson, a former White House official, was the source for the bogus Washington Post report about Jessica Lynch and her supposed battlefield heroics in the Iraq War in 2003.

The claims in Krakauer’s book were unattributed — and vigorously denied by Wilkinson, who sought a correction.

When it came, the correction was inserted unobtrusively in a new printing of the paperback edition of Krakauer’s book, Where Men Win Glory. It read:

“Earlier editions of this book stated that it was Jim Wilkinson ‘who arranged to give the Washington Post exclusive access’ to this leaked intelligence [about Jessica Lynch]. This is incorrect. Wilkinson had nothing to do with the leak.”

I’ve noted that the Post’s enduring silence about its sources on the Lynch story has allowed for the emergence not only of false allegations such as those about Wilkinson, but of a false narrative that the military concocted the tale about Lynch’s derring-do.

The false narrative  also has deflected attention from the soldier whose heroics apparently were misattributed to Lynch. He was Sgt. Donald Walters, a cook in Lynch’s unit.

‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosures (posted August 18): A handsome historical marker went up in August outside the parking garage in Arlington, Virginia, where Bob Woodward of the Post conferred occasionally in 1972 and 1973 with his stealthy Watergate source, “Deep Throat.”

The marker, I pointed out, errs in describing the information Woodward received from the “Deep Throat” source, who in 2005 revealed himself as W. Mark Felt, formerly the FBI’s second in command.

The marker says:

“Felt provided Woodward information that exposed the Nixon administration’s obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation.”

Which just isn’t so.

Such evidence, had “Deep Throat” offered it to Woodward, would have been so damaging and so explosive that it surely would have forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency well before he did, in August 1974.

Felt didn’t have that sort of information — or (less likely) didn’t share it with Woodward.

I noted in my post about the marker that All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting, says Woodward’s conversations with “Deep Throat” were intended “only to confirm information that had been gathered elsewhere and to add some perspective.”

Bra-burning in Toronto: Confirmed (posted February 19): I ascertained in this post that an image of a bra-burning protest in Toronto in 1979 was no hoax, that the photograph was authentic.

I had not seen the photograph before it appeared in February with an article at the online site of  London’s Guardian newspaper.

I had doubts about the photo’s authenticity — given the periodic claims that no bras ever were burned at a feminist protest. The Toronto image, I suspected, might have been unethically altered.

Turns out that was not the case.

I tracked down one of the participants at the Toronto protest and she confirmed the bra-burning, saying by phone from Vancouver:

“The photo is authentic. Absolutely. It happened.”

The participant was Vicki Trerise, who appears at the far right in the photograph above.

The photograph shows a moment of demonstrative bra-burning, although Trerise said it “wasn’t a focal point” of the protest, which took place not far from Toronto’s City Hall.

The bra-burning came near the end of the demonstration, which was called to protest what the organizers said was an illogical report about rape, prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police.

Trerise said the demonstrators in Toronto were media-savvy and “knew that if they burned a bra, someone would take their picture.”

Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school (posted February 17): The online welcome page of the dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University contained a quotation attributed to Murrow that’s only half-true.

Murrow

The quote reads:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

As I’ve reported previously, the first portion of the quote was indeed spoken by Murrow, in his mythical 1954 television program that addressed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting ways.

The second part of the quote — “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it” — is apocryphal.

In February, I found that the full quotation — accompanied by a facsimile of Murrow’s signature — was posted at the welcome page of Dean Lawrence Pintak of Murrow College at Washington State, Murrow’s alma mater.

I asked the dean what knew about the quote’s provenance, noting that I had consulted, among other sources, a database of historical newspapers which contained no articles quoting the “loyal opposition” passage.

Pintak referred my inquiry to an instructor on his faculty who, a few hours later, sent an email to the dean and me, stating:

“While [the 'loyal opposition' quotation] seems to reflect the Murrow spirit, the lack of evidence that he phrased it that way is indeed suspicious.”

He added: “I feel the evidence says no, Murrow did not say this.”

By day’s end, the suspect quote had been pulled from the welcome page. Just the authentic portion — “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty” — remained posted there.

Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon (posted March 12): Joe Biden, the hapless U.S. vice president, repeated the dominant but misleading narrative about the Watergate scandal in March by telling an audience in Moscow that the Washington Post had “brought down” Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The gaffe-prone Biden told his audience:

“In my country it was a newspaper, not the FBI, or the Justice Department, it was a newspaper, the Washington Post that brought down a President for illegal actions.”

It’s a version of scandal that few serious historians accept. Not even the Washington Post buys into such a myth-encrusted interpretation.

Indeed, principals at the Post from time to time have sought to distance the newspaper from that misleading assessment.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, said in 1997, at a program marking the 25th anniversary of the scandal:

“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.”

More recently, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, 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.”

Such comments are not the expressions of false modesty. Instead, they represent a more accurate reading of the history of Watergate than Biden offered up in Moscow.

Even so, in the run-up to the scandal’s 40th anniversary in 2012, the Watergate myth — the heroic-journalist trope — is sure to emerge often and insistently.

But the Post and its reporting of Watergate assuredly did not bring down Nixon, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my latest book which was published in 2010.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

Other memorable posts of 2011:

So it begins: Woodward, Bernstein, and excess in run-up to Watergate’s 40th

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 4, 2011 at 12:48 am

American journalists love anniversaries, so expect excess next year at the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which gave rise to the greatest scandal in U.S. politics — and to the media-driven myth that Washington Post journalists toppled a president.

Woodward: 40th anniversary honor

In fact, Watergate commemorative excess is already scheduled.

The Los Angeles Press Club announced the other day that it plans to recognize the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at next year’s Southern California Journalism Awards program.

“Woodward and Bernstein’s series of articles for The Washington Post unraveled the biggest American political scandal to date, culminating in President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Four decades later, the stories still stand as a bellwether of investigative journalism,” the press club said in a news release.  “To mark the occasion, the Los Angeles Press Club will honor Woodward and Bernstein with the 2012 President’s Award.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973. But to say they “unraveled” Watergate is an exaggeration, a misreading of history.

As I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was at best a minor factor in bringing down Richard Nixon.

What ended Nixon’s presidency was the incontrovertible evidence of the president’s culpability in the crimes of Watergate — evidence captured on audiotapes that he secretly made of his conversations at the White House.

The decisive evidence — known as the “Smoking Gun” tape — revealed that Nixon at a meeting with his top aide, H.R. Haldemann, on June 23, 1972, sought to deflect or derail the FBI investigation into the break-in several days before at Democratic National headquarters  at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC.

The reporting of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal the contents of that tape, which Watergate prosecutors had subpoenaed and which Nixon had refused to surrender until 1974, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him to do so.

Their reporting didn’t disclose the existence of Nixon’s taping system, either. It was revealed in July 1973, during hearings of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In All the President’s Men, their book about their Watergate reporting, Woodward and Bernstein said they had received a tip about the taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

According to All the President’s Men, Ben Bradlee, then the Post‘s executive editor, suggested not expending much energy pursuing the tip. And Woodward and Bernstein didn’t.

What really “unraveled” Watergate, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was 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.

Even then, despite all that scrutiny and pressure, Nixon, I argue, “likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”

Far more important the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein to the outcome of Watergate was the federal judge who presided at Watergate-related trials, John J. Sirica.

The Post acknowledged Sirica’s decisive role in unraveling Watergate in its obituary of the judge, published in 1992, shortly after his death.

The newspaper said Sirica’s “persistence in searching for the facts while presiding over the Watergate cases led to President Nixon’s resignation,” adding:

“Sirica’s order that tape recordings of White House conversations about the Watergate break-in be made available to prosecutors precipitated Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The tapes revealed that Nixon had approved plans for the Watergate coverup six days after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex by men who were working for the Committee to Reelect the President.

“In directing the White House to produce the tapes, Sirica set himself on a constitutional collision course with Nixon, who tried to invoke executive privilege and argue that the tapes were not subject to judicial scrutiny. But in a historic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Sirica, ruling unanimously that the judiciary must have the last word in an orderly constitutional system.”

WJC

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