W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘All the President’s Men’

The media myths of Watergate: Part Three

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 19, 2012 at 5:25 am

This is the third of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began
unfolding 40 years ago this week with the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the most famous made-up line of Watergate.

“Follow the money.” It’s the best-known, most popular turn-of-phrase associated with the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.

Felt: Never said it

It’s often said that “follow the money” was sage counsel offered by the stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source with whom Bob Woodward of the Washington Post periodically met as the scandal unfolded.

The guidance to “follow the money” supposedly proved crucial in understanding and unraveling the labyrinthine scandal that was Watergate.

Except that it really wasn’t.

“Deep Throat” never advised Woodward to “follow the money.”

The passage appears in no Watergate-related article or editorial in the Post until June 1981, nearly seven years after Nixon’s resignation. It doesn’t appear, either, in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, wrote about their Watergate reporting.

Follow the money” was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book.

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

Holbrook in All the President’s Men turned in a marvelous performance as a twitchy, conflicted, chain-smoking “Deep Throat.”

‘All the President’s Men,’ the movie

He delivered the line, “follow the money,” with such raspy assurance and conviction that it seemed for all the world to be vital to understanding the scandal that began unfolding 40 years ago.

Follow the money” is certainly Watergate’s most memorable and mythical phrase; it is so pithy and emphatic that it seems almost too good not to be true.

Indeed, “follow the money” tends to be treated with reverence by news media. A “credo,” it’s been called.

Take, for example, a recent post at the “Daily Intel” blog of New York Magazine. The blog post began by invoking the famous phrase, with emphasis:

Follow the money. The pithy investigative advice Woodward and Bernstein attributed to Deep Throat is still brilliant and important, whatever else the Watergate reporters may have embellished.”

Brilliant and important?

Made up is more like it.

But even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice neither would have unraveled the Watergate scandal nor led him to Nixon.

Besides, Woodward and Bernstein already were on the money trail.

One of their most important stories was in reporting that a $25,000 check to Nixon’s reelection campaign had been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars.

The scandal, though, was much more than Nixon’s improper use of campaign funds. The president was forced to resign because he obstructed justice by approving a plan to cover up the burglary at the Democratic National Committee.

The simplified, follow-the-money construct not only is inaccurate and misleading: It serves to deflect attention from the array of forces that combined to expose Nixon’s crimes.

As I note in my 2010 book Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s depth and dimension 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,” I write, “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” that cost him the presidency.

WJC

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The media myths of Watergate: Part Two

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 18, 2012 at 5:42 am

This is the second of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week with
the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington
of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the notion
that the 
Washington Post “uncovered” the Watergate story.

Post’s Watergate story, June 18, 1972 (Ransom Center, University of Texas)

Watergate was America’s gravest political scandal. It began as a police beat story.

News of the scandal’s seminal crime — the thwarted break-in of June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. — was circulating within hours.

The opening paragraph of the Posts front-page report about the burglary, published 40 years ago today, made it clear that details had come from investigating authorities. The paragraph read:

“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.”

So it can’t be said the Post “uncovered” the Watergate story.

Nor can it be said that the newspaper “uncovered” crucial elements of the deepening scandal, which ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

Take, for example, Nixon’s secret audiotaping system at the White House.

Existence of the tapes was disclosed in July 1973 to a bipartisan select committee of the U.S. Senate (see video clip below).

The tapes were decisive to Watergate’s outcome; Watergate’s leading historian, Stanley I. Kutler, has characterized them as “the gift of the gods.”

The so-called “smoking gun” tape revealed that Nixon had approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in of DNC headquarters.

He did so in a conversation June 23, 1972, with his top aide, H.R. Haldeman. The contents of the “smoking gun” tape were made public in early August 1974, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn it over to investigators.

The “smoking gun” tape sealed Nixon’s fate and led to his resigning the presidency.

(As Kutler has noted, Nixon-White House tapes “released in 1997 clearly reveal” that the president knew about “hush money” payments to the Watergate burglars.)

Interestingly, the Post’s Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, later claimed to have had a solid lead about Nixon’s taping system — a lead they did not pursue.

They mentioned in their book, All the President’s Men, that Woodward had spoken about the tip with Ben Bradlee, then the Post’s executive editor.

Bradlee advised: “See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it.”

And they didn’t.

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

Principals at the Post often have said that the newspaper’s reporting kept the Watergate story alive during the summer and fall of 1972, a time when few other news organizations seemed interested in pursuing the scandal.

Leonard Downie, who succeeded Bradlee as executive editor, renewed that claim in a recent commentary in the Post.

For “several months after the Watergate burglary in 1972,” Downie wrote, “Woodward, Bernstein and their colleagues on the local news staff of The Post were alone on the story.

“We were ignored and doubted by the rest of the news media and most of the country, and under heavy fire from the Nixon administration and its supporters.”

It’s a heroic interpretation.

But it’s not entirely accurate.

As I point out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “The Post may well have led other newspapers on the Watergate story — principally was because Watergate at first was a local story, based in Washington, D.C.

“But rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972.”

The Los Angeles Times, for example, published a first-person account in early October 1972 of Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who acted as a lookout man in the Watergate burglary.

Significantly, the New York Times was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the burglars, a pivotal disclosure in mid-January 1973. The Times report made clear that efforts were under way to cover up and conceal the roles of others in the scandal.

John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, recalled in a memoir published years later that the Times report about hush-money payments “hit home!”

The disclosure, Dean wrote, “had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

And as Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in a classic essay in 1974, the Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in directing attention to the scandal.

Moreover, George McGovern, Nixon’s hapless Democratic challenger for the presidency in 1972, not infrequently invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances. At one point in the summer of 1972, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate burglary.

So in the summer and fall of 1972, the Post was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.

The Post, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “was very much not alone.”

WJC

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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

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.

Recent and related:

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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‘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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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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‘Immortal advice’ given only in a movie

In Debunking, Media myths, Watergate myth on November 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

Add the New Yorker blog “Rational Irrationality” to the lineup of news organizations and outlets that have invoked Watergate’s most famous made-up line — “follow the money” — as if it were genuine.

Felt: Didn't say it

As if the Washington Post’s stealthy “Deep Throat” source really spoke the line “follow the money” as guidance to unraveling the Watergate scandal.

Which he didn’t.

The “Rational Irrationality” blog the other day joined the likes of the Financial Times, Fox News, the Huffington Post, Minnesota Public Radio, the Providence Journal, media critic Eric Alterman, the Hindu newspaper in India, among others, in invoking the line as if it had been advice earnestly offered by “Deep Throat.”

“Rational Irrationality” referred to the line as “immortal advice,” stating:

“There are two ways to figure out what is really happening in Washington politics. One is to interview Administration officials, congressmen, Capitol Hill staffers, think-tank wonks, and so on, and write down what they say. The other journalistic technique is to heed Deep Throat’s immortal advice to Bob Woodward and follow the money trail. When it comes to budgets and the deficit, the Deep Throat methodology is usually the more informative.”

The line certainly may be timeless. Even “immortal.”  But “Deep Throat” never told Woodward, he of the Washington Post, to “follow the money.”

That line appears nowhere in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Post colleague Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting — reporting that did not, as I discuss in my latest work, Getting It Wrong, bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Moreover, “follow the money” appeared in no Watergate-related article or editorial published in the Post  before 1981 — which was years after Nixon quit the presidency in disgrace.

Follow the money” was a line made for the movies: It was written into the screenplay of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.

The line was memorably uttered not by the real-life “Deep Throat” — who in 2005 was self-revealed to have been W. Mark Felt, formerly a top official at the FBI — but by Hal Holbrook, the actor who played “Deep Throat” in the movie.

Holbrook turned in an outstanding performance as a conflicted, tormented “Deep Throat.”

And he delivered his “follow the money” lines with such grave assurance and certainty that it seemed to offer a way to understand the intricacies of the Watergate scandal.

But as I’ve noted at Media Myth Alert, even if Woodward had been counseled to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office in 1974 was not the misuse of campaign funds but the president’s active role in attempting to obstruct justice by covering up the signal crime of the Watergate scandal, the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Rolling up the scandal of Watergate’s complexity and dimension was scarcely as straightforward as pursuing misused campaign contributions.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, unraveling 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,” I argue, “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” that cost him the presidency.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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