Forty years ago this week, Alexander Butterfield told a U.S. Senate select committee investigating the Watergate scandal that President Richard Nixon had installed a secret audiotaping system in his offices.
Butterfield’s disclosure was one of the most decisive moments in the Watergate. It focused the scandal’s multiple investigations into a months-long pursuit of the tapes — one of which clearly revealed Nixon’s role in attempting to cover up the crimes of Watergate. That revelation forced his resignation in August 1974.
How the Post fumbled that story makes for an intriguing sidebar at the anniversary of Butterfield’s stunning disclosure. The newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, described in a book about their reporting how leads about the taping system were not pursued.
The book, All the President’s Men, says that Woodward had found out about private testimony that Butterfield had given to staff members of the select committee and he called Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, for guidance.
The call to Bradlee was on a Saturday night. After outlining what he knew, Woodward, according to the book, said:
“We’ll go to work on it, if you want.”
In reply, Bradlee is quoted as saying with some slight irritation, “Well, I don’t know.”
How would you rate the prospective story? Woodward asked him.
“B-plus,” Bradlee replied.
Woodward figured a B-plus wasn’t much, according to the book.
“See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it,” Bradlee is quoted as instructing Woodward.
And Woodward didn’t “bust one.”
Two days later, on July 16, 1973, Butterfield made his reluctant disclosure at a public session of the Senate select committee.
The following day, according to All the President’s Men, Bradlee conceded that the lead about the taping system was “more than a B-plus.”
The anecdote from All the President’s Men is suggestive of the overall minor role that the Post played in uncovering Watergate. As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension of Watergate “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.
“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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
All the President’s Men was revealing in other ways about the work and conduct of Woodward and Bernstein. Media critic Jack Shafer, in a column in 2004, revisited a number of reporting flaws and ethical lapses that Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged in their book.
It’s a roster of transgressions that is too-little remembered.
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