The death of Ben Bradlee, the celebrated former executive editor of the Washington Post, touched off a wave of tributes that erroneously cited the newspaper’s central role in the Watergate scandal, which culminated 40 years ago with the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Bradlee, himself, had rejected the simplistic and mythical notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” He was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in covering up the crimes of Watergate, forcing him to quit in August 1974.
But as news spread yesterday that Bradlee had died at age 93, adulatory tributes poured in, many of them blithely invoking the media myth of Watergate.
The Los Angeles Times declared that the Post’s Watergate reporting “ultimately brought down a president.”
The online version of the New York Times obituary about Bradlee stated that he “presided over The Washington Post’s Watergate reporting that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.” (The print edition of the Times is less sweeping if not more accurate, saying Bradlee “presided over The Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal that led to the fall of President Richard M. Nixon.”)
The Guardian newspaper in London asserted that Bradlee “oversaw the reporting that brought down a president.”
Similarly, the German news service Deutsche Welle said “Bradlee oversaw the journalistic investigation that brought down US president Richard Nixon.” (The new service also claimed the Post’s reporting “led to the impeachment and resignation of Nixon”: Not only was the Post’s reporting a marginal factor in Nixon’s resignation, which he submitted before he could be impeached.)
And so it went.
Even the Post, which over the years had largely refrained from embracing the Watergate myth, went all in, saying on its front page today that Watergate was “a political scandal touched off by the Post’s reporting.”
The scandal, in fact, was touched off by a burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters, and investigative authorities quickly tied the crime to Nixon’s reelection committee and to White House operatives. Watergate hardly was “touched off by the Post’s reporting”; nor did the Post contribute significantly to the scandal’s unraveling.
Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the Post’s reporting failed to disclose the White House cover up of the Watergate crimes. It also failed to reveal the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes, which were crucial to the scandal’s outcome.
Their existence was disclosed in July 1973, during hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate.
In their book All the President’s Men, the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, said they received a tip about the secret White House taping system a few days before its existence was made public.
But according to the book, Bradlee suggested they not expend much energy pursuing the tip. They didn’t, and thus missed reporting a decisive breakthrough in Watergate.
The Post went hagiographic in its editorial page tribute to Bradlee, describing him as “the architect and builder of the modern Washington Post. His conviction that even the most powerful should be held to a standard of truth-telling inspired journalists well beyond The Post. His exuberance at work and in life served as a model well beyond journalism.”
The editorial continued, saying, “There was nothing like working for him …. His newsroom crackled with the energy of a modern startup. A certain ‘creative tension’ was the reality, a competition among reporters and editors to win his approval. Mr. Bradlee loved the chase and the thrill of discovery.”
And so on.
Surely it is not churlish to point out that the editorial failed to mention Bradlee’s greatest failure as editor — the fraud of “Jimmy’s World,” a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that the Post published in 1980. The article was so compelling that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
But soon after the award was announced, it was revealed that Janet Cooke, the author of “Jimmy’s World,” had falsified key elements of the biography submitted to the Pulitzer board, claiming among other credentials a degree from Vassar and a command of six languages.
The exposure of those lies forced the Post editors to confront Cooke about “Jimmy’s World,” and she soon confessed to having made it all up.
The extensive back story to “Jimmy’s World” was reported by William Green, then the Post’s ombudsman, in 1981; his writeup is available here and, 33 years on, it still makes absorbing reading.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- NYTimes mag and the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate
- The Watergate myth that offers something for everyone
- Misreporting Watergate
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosure
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga?
- WaPo ‘broke the Watergate scandal’? No way
- A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist interpretation of Watergate
- Watergate made boring
- Every good historian a mythbuster
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism