W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Watergate’

Runup to the Oscars: ‘Politically inspired movies’ and the myth of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

The runup to the Academy Awards ceremony brings inevitable bursts of nostalgia — as well as the almost-predictable appearance of hoary media myths.

CNN logoCNN.com today offered a gauzy look back at “politically inspired movies that have been nominated [for] or won” an Oscar. In doing so, CNN bought into the media myth of the Watergate scandal.

The retrospective discussed the 1976 film All The President’s Men, noting that it “won four Oscars and was nominated for four more.”

The movie was an adaptation of a book by the Washington Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who, according to CNN, were “responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal and forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon.”

All the President’s Men, CNN added, “provided context and drama about how the reporters brought down the most powerful man on Earth.”

That’s an expansive claim. It’s also glib, and totally mythical.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting did not bring down Nixon. They didn’t uncover the scandal, either.

All President's Men

The movie

Far from it.

Woodward and Bernstein and the Post were at best modest contributors in unraveling an intricate scandal that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

Indeed, when considered against the far more decisive forces and factors that uncovered Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions recede into near insignificance.

The decisive forces included special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

Even in the face of such an array of forces, I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 the signal crime of Watergate — the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

Notably, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal existence of Nixon’s secret tapes, the contents of which proved vital in Watergate’s outcome. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the extent of the attempted coverup of the crimes of Watergate.

What’s more, principals at the Washington Post have from time to time over the years dismissed the notion that the newspaper was central in forcing Nixon’s resignation.

For example, the Post’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, said in 1997 at a program 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.”

Even Woodward has scoffed at the notion, telling American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men contains few references to the subpoena-wielding authorities who really did break open the scandal. Instead, the movie leads audiences to just one, misleading conclusion — that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was vital to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.

WJC

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Landmark status for WaPo building? Watergate reporting ought not be a factor

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 6, 2013 at 9:24 am
A landmark?

A landmark?

Could the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting of 40 years ago become a factor in designating the newspaper’s headquarters a local historic landmark?

If so, such a result would represent a serious misreading of history.

The Washington Business Journal  reported yesterday that the D.C. Preservation League plans to consider whether the Post headquarters building, built in 1950, merits landmark status.

The Post last week said it may put the building up for sale, citing economic and operational reasons.

The Business Journal described the Post building in downtown Washington as an example “of Modernist architecture” and added, in a passage of especial interest to Media Myth Alert:

“Beyond its age and architectural design, one could also make a case that the Watergate reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation makes it doubly historically significant.”

Doubly historically significant?

Hardly. Unless, that is, you embrace the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting exposed the crimes that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But not even principals at the Post have claimed that the newspaper’s Watergate reporting “led to” or otherwise brought about Nixon’s resignation.

As Woodward once told the PBS “Frontline” program, “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.

“The Washington Post stories,” Woodward said, “had some part in a chain of events that … were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and afterward the Watergate scandal, said at a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“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.”

Quite so.

While it has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate, the heroic-journalist meme has obscured the role of forces far more consequential than the Post in uncovering America’s gravest political scandal.

Those forces, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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 the signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The existence of the White House tapes, by the way, was not uncovered by Woodward and Bernstein. That disclosure came in July 1973, at hearings of a Senate select committee on Watergate.

So it’s quite a stretch to argue that the Post’s modest-at-best contributions to uncovering the Watergate scandal makes its aging headquarters building especially “significant,” historically. (The newsroom certainly was made famous in All the President’s Men,  the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. A replica of the Post newsroom was built for the movie at a studio in Los Angeles.)

The DCist blog had a bit of fun with the Business Journal report about prospective landmark status for the Post’s headquarters.

The building “has certainly seen its share of history,” the blog noted, “from the Pentagon Papers to the downfall of President Richard Nixon to Janet Cooke’s profile work to that time Dan Zak wrote about August.”

The Post and the New York Times were enjoined by the Nixon administration in 1971 from publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — an injunction the Supreme Court invalidated in a 6-3 decision.

Janet Cooke was the Post reporter whose front-page story about an 8-year-old, third-generation heroin addict won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The newspaper surrendered the Pulitzer following disclosures that Cooke made up the story.

And Zak’s essay about August appeared in the Post last July 31. It included this passage:

“August is for avoiding thought. August is for thinking about August. August is for reading essays assaying the meaning of August’s meaningless.”

WJC

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The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 2, 2013 at 7:58 am

News that the Washington Post is exploring the sale of its headquarters building inevitably stirred reminders of the Watergate scandal, supposedly the newspaper’s most memorable exposé.

The Wall Street Journal makes that link in an article today while credulously invoking the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.

wapo-logo“The Washington, D.C., newsroom where two reporters took down a president may soon be on the block,” the Journal states, referring to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead reporters on America’s greatest political scandal.

While it may make for a catchy “lede” (journalese for a story’s opening paragraph), the reference to the reporters who “took down a president” is wrong-headed: It’s a media myth that simplifies and distorts the forces and factors that led Nixon to quit in disgrace.

Even principals at the PostWoodward among them — have asserted over the years that the newspaper did not bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. And they weren’t indulging in false modesty in saying so. (Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once said, for example: “[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”)

And as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “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.

Nixon quits

‘Nixon got Nixon’

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

So why does the mediacentric heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate live on? Why is it so tempting to invoke, as the Journal does today?

Explanations go well beyond a reporter’s need for a catchy lede.

An especially compelling reason for the myth’s tenacity is that it makes accessible and understandable the intricate scandal that was Watergate.

That complexity —the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not readily recalled these days.

The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

What does stand out, though, is the heroic-journalist meme — the appealing if misleading notion that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of Watergate and brought Nixon down.

It’s history lite, history made simple.

The myth is endlessly reassuring for journalists, too, suggesting as it does that journalism can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change. As I point out in Getting It Wrong, “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 also one of journalism’s self-sustaining tales, as the Wall Street Journal demonstrates quite well today.

WJC

Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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Proxies for reality: Fact-based films and their mythmaking potential

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

The Sunday “Outlook” section of the Washington Post usually is such a ZeroDarkThirty_posterjumble of thumbsucker essays and middling book reviews that it deserves just passing attention.

What made yesterday’s “Outlook” an exception was an engaging critique of Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial new movie about the CIA’s years-long hunt for terror leader Osama bin-Laden.

The critique, written by former CIA official Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., suggests anew the mythmaking capacity of fact-based films. “Inevitably,” Rodriguez writes of Zero Dark Thirty, “films like this come to be seen by the public as a sort of proxy for reality.”

And that’s especially troubling because, as Rodriguez also points out:

“One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways.” Publicity for Zero Dark Thirty emphasizes that it rests upon careful research, Rodriguez notes; at the same time, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, has insisted it’s “not a documentary.”

Carefully researched, yet with enough fictional or imaginative elements so that it’s no documentary: Such have been the ingredients of mythmaking by the cinema.

All the President’s Men offers a compelling example.

The hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that the dogged investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — was propelled and solidified by the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein‘s 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

The movie version was fact-based, but certainly no documentary treatment of Watergate (even though the Post once referred to the film as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes“).

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie offers “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account of the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

The movie dramatized the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein while ignoring the far more decisive contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and Congressional investigative panels.

The omissions made for a cleaner storyline — and promoted a media-centric myth that not even Woodward embraces.

“To say that the press brought down Nixon,” Woodward once told American Journalism Review, “that’s horseshit.”

WordPress_FreshlyPressed logoAll the President’s Men was made in 1976 and remains the most-viewed cinematic treatment of Watergate –  a “proxy for reality” about how America’s greatest political scandal was rolled up. It’s Watergate simplified.

Rodriguez says in his commentary that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty get a lot right: Notably, they “portray the hunt for bin Laden as a 10-year marathon, rather than a sprint ordered by a new president.”

His principal concern is the movie’s depiction of the interrogation of captured al-Qaeda operatives. The interrogation scenes early in the movie “torture the truth,” he writes, adding:

“The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

“The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.”

I’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty. But Rodriguez’s critique seems well-reasoned. He advises theatergoers to recognize “that Zero Dark Thirty is more than a movie and less than the literal truth.”

I’d shift the obligation somewhat, away from moviegoers: It behooves the makers of fact-based movies to stipulate that “fact-based” doesn’t mean factual, that even high-quality cinematic treatments simplify and distort.

Fact-based movies ought not be served up in effect as history lessons for the public.

These are hardly new concerns, of course. “Is it possible,” Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in an essay in the New York Times, “to have successful cinema and good history at the same time?”

Perhaps, Bernstein added, “the rule of thumb is this: When artists, intentionally or not, distort the known facts to get an effect, either political or commercial, they are on the wrong side of the line between poetic truth and historical falsification. Artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow the truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history as well.”

Ideally, fact-based movies would be so compelling as to stimulate interest and curiosity, to encourage passive theatergoers to find out more about the subject, to conduct some research on their own.

Doing so isn’t always easy; but it can be an antidote to cinematic mythmaking.

WJC

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Media myth distorts Chicago Tribune timeline of newspaper history

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

The Chicago Tribune the other day published a timeline of American newspaper history over the past 50 years — a chronology tainted by the inclusion of a prominent media myth.

The Tribune declared “the daily paper remains vital to an informed citizenry” in presenting the timeline, which it said demonstrated “how newspapers expose — and occasionally commit — wrongdoing.”

The myth appears in the timeline entry for 1974, which says: “A corrupt U.S. president, Richard Nixon, is brought down by a newspaper, The Washington Post.”

Brought down by a newspaper.

Now, that may be the popular dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal — that the dogged reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the corruption that forced Nixon’s resignation.

But it’s a mythical, media-centric interpretation, a trope that not even the Post embraces.

In fact, Woodward once dismissed such characterizations as “horseshit.” And for good reason.

As I discuss in a chapter in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate demanded the collective if not always coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

Even then, as I note in Getting It Wrong, Nixon likely would have survived the scandal and served out his term had it not been 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 telltale 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.

It is interesting to note that the Post in its Watergate reporting did not disclose the existence of the Watergate tapes, nor did the newspaper identify or unravel the coverup of Watergate-related crimes.

To assert that the Post brought down Nixon is, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

What, then, accounts for the tenacity of this hoary media myth? Why does it persist, despite the evidence that can be arrayed against it?

A number of reasons offer themselves.

The Watergate myth, after all, offers a simplistic, easy-to-grasp interpretation of a scandal that was intimidating in its complexity: The web of misconduct that took down Nixon also landed nearly 20 of his top aides, associates, and cabinet officers in jail.

Media myths often spring from simplicity, from the desire for tidy and uncomplicated versions of history. Not only that, but the notion that the Post brought down Nixon fits neatly into a timeline.

A feel-good component buoys the Watergate myth, too: The myth affirms the notion that newspapers, beleaguered though they are, really can make a difference in American politics and in American democracy.

Which, itself, is something of a media myth.

WJC

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Debates are over, media myth lives on

In Debunking, Media myths on October 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

The runup to the three presidential debates this month inevitably was accompanied by references to the 1960 encounter between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon — and to references to the media myth distorts understanding of the historic confrontation 52 years ago.

Debates are over, myth lives on

Even days after the final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the 1960 debate myth still swirls.

The myth has it that television viewers thought Kennedy won the first debate of that campaign while radio listeners believed Nixon prevailed.

It’s a dubious bit of political lore that long ago became a defining feature of that debate. And it lives on as a reminder about how appearances supposedly trump substance in American presidential politics.

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate is implausible for several reasons, including the absence of representative polling data that confirmed such a disparity.

What likely was more decisive than appearance in that debate was Nixon’s willingness to be conciliatory, to concur with Kennedy. In his opening statement, Nixon seemed to second the points raised by Kennedy, who had spoken first.

Nixon said:

“The things that Senator Kennedy has said many of us can agree with. … There is no question but that this nation cannot stand still; because we are in a deadly competition, a competition not only with the men in the Kremlin, but the men in Peking. We’re ahead in this competition, as Senator Kennedy, I think, has implied. But when you’re in a race, the only way to stay ahead is to move ahead. And I subscribe completely to the spirit that Senator Kennedy has expressed tonight, the spirit that the United States should move ahead.”

But in discussing the debate more than 50 years later, it’s far easier to reach for the myth of viewer-listener disagreement than it is to recall Nixon’s ill-advised tactics.

This was suggested in a lengthy commentary about the Obama-Romney debates, posted the other day at the online site of the liberal American Prospect political magazine.

The commentary invoked the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in stating:

“As for wishing these suckers were serious policy discussions, I can’t think of a single presidential debate that’s ever been decided on those grounds. Even in 1960, when the jousting between Kennedy and Nixon was relatively substantive, JFK triumphed purely on image, one proof being that people who only heard their confrontations on radio famously thought Nixon had cleaned his clock.”

The commentary offered no evidence to support the claim of clock-cleaning-on-the-radio.

That’s because there is no persuasive, contemporaneous evidence to that effect.

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was demolished in a journal article published 25 years ago by scholars David L. Vancil and Sue D. Pendell.

Their article, published in Central States Speech Journal, noted that accounts of viewer-listener disagreement about the Kennedy-Nixon debate invariably were anecdotal and impressionistic — and hardly representative of the American electorate in 1960.

The polling organization Sindlinger & Co. did report that its survey respondents who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon won, by a 2-to-1 margin.

But as  Vancil and Pendell pointed out, Sindlinger’s sample of radio listeners included just 282 respondents — of whom 178 offered an opinion about the debate winner. The numbers were far too few to permit meaningful generalizations or conclusions.

Like many media myths, the notion of listener-viewer disagreement is so delicious that it must have been true.

The New Republic hinted at such sentiment on Monday, the day of the final Obama-Romney debate, in an essay that stated: “[P]erhaps it’s safe to say that 1960 was the year we learned that looks and demeanor, as seen on TV, were just as important as speech when it came to winning over voters.”

In making the claim, the New Republic essay cited an intriguing experiment, reported in 2003, in which 171 summer students at the University of Minnesota either viewed a video of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate or listened to an audio recording of the encounter.

None of the participants had prior knowledge about the Kennedy-Nixon debate, according to the researcher, James Druckman.

He reported finding that television viewers in his experiment “were significantly more likely to believe Kennedy won the debate than audio listeners.”

This, he declared, represented “the first clear empirical evidence consistent with the widespread assertion of viewer-listener disagreement in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate.”

But in a footnote, Druckman reported that 81 percent of the viewers in his experiment thought Kennedy won; so did 60 percent of listeners.

That finding is inconsistent with the central element of alleged viewer-listener disagreement — that Kennedy won among television viewers while Nixon won among radio listeners.

What’s more, participants in Druckman’s experiment skewed Democratic: The “sample did underrepresent Republicans,” he wrote in another footnote. As such, participants may have been more readily sympathetic to Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, than to Nixon, the Republican.

Druckman also acknowledged that “younger people”  in the early 21st century may have processed “televised information differently” from viewers in 1960. To be sure, applying the experiment’s results to viewers and listeners of the presidential debate in 1960 is impossible.

WJC

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The media myths of Watergate: Part Five

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 21, 2012 at 6:32 am

This is the last 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 address the often-stated claim that enrollments in college journalism programs in the United States
soared in the aftermath of Watergate.

Watergate made Gerald Ford president — and made journalism seem sexy

It’s a subsidiary myth of Watergate, that the reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post — made legendary by the cinematic adaptation of their book, All the President’s Men — turned journalism into glamorous and alluring profession.

So alluring and heroic were the depictions of Woodward and Bernstein as they, ahem, toppled a corrupt president that young adult Americans in the 1970s thronged to collegiate journalism programs.

A commentary last week in Post made just that point, declaring that the film had “inspired a generation of journalism school students.” Similarly, a recent essay at Gawker.com said the glowing accounts of Woodward and Bernstein’s work “helped swell enrollments at journalism schools across the nation as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession.”

But it’s a media myth that Watergate stimulated journalism school enrollments — a myth that endures despite its thorough repudiation by scholarly research.

As I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter confronting what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was much of a stimulus.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies as they would surely have reflected 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 j-school enrollments.

But the evidence just isn’t there.

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

The study’s authors, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly that “students didn’t come rushing to the university because they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein ….”

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

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

Watergate’s presumed stimulus on journalism school enrollments is an attractive and simplistic construct, easy to grasp, and easy to remember.

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

WJC

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The media myths of Watergate: Part Four

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 20, 2012 at 7:40 am

This is the fourth 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 addresses the notion that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
placed the reporters in grave danger.

No film or documentary about Watergate has been seen more often by more people than All the President’s Men, the 1976 adaptation of the eponymous book by the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The movie won rave reviews. The New York Times called it “a spellbinding detective story” and “an unequivocal smash-hit — the thinking man’s Jaws.”

The Post once immodestly described All the President’s Men as “journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes” and “the best film ever made about the craft of journalism.”

For all its glowing notices, All the President’s Men was often sluggish in pacing. More than a few scenes showed reporters at their desk, talking into telephones and banging away at typewriters.

Hardly gripping cinema.

But a measure of drama and menace was injected near the close of the movie (see video clip below).

That came when Woodward’s stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source, at a meeting in a darkened parking garage, grimly warns the wide-eyed reporter, played by Robert Redford:

“Your lives are in danger.”

But was it even true? Had Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting about the misdeeds of men close to President Richard Nixon, unknowingly put their lives on the line? Were they targeted by Nixon’s henchmen? Or was this just dramatic license by Hollywood?

The movie leaves such questions hanging. The Woodward/Redford character informs the Bernstein character (played by Dustin Hoffman) about what “Deep Throat” said, and together they confer with the Post’s executive editor character (Jason Robards) — in the middle of the night, in the middle of the editor’s lawn.

But the movie closes before resolving the question of the hazards the reporters faced.

So were their lives really in danger?

Nope.

Not according to the book, All the President’s Men.

The book discusses a late-night meeting between Woodward and “Deep Throat” in mid-May 1973 when the source — W. Mark Felt, a senior official at the FBI, as it turned out — advised the reporter to “be cautious.”

Woodward returned to his apartment and invited Bernstein to stop by. When he did, Woodward typed out a message and handed it to his colleague:

Everyone’s life is in danger.”

Bernstein gave a curious look and Woodward typed another note:

Deep Throat says electronic surveillance is going on and we had better watch it.”

Who was doing the surveillance? Bernstein asked in long hand.

“C-I-A,” Woodward silently mouthed.

For a time afterward, the reporters and senior editors at the Post took precautions to avoid the suspected surveillance of their activities.

Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men that they “conferred on street corners, passed notes in the office, avoided telephone conversations.”

But soon, they said, “it all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic” and they went back to their routines.

No evidence, they wrote, was ever found “that their telephones had been tapped or that anyone’s life had been in danger.”

At a program last week at the Newseum, Woodward said he took Felt’s warning “too literally. I think he was speaking metaphorically” about the hazards.

“I think it was an overreaction,” Woodward said.

On another occasion — an online chat five years ago — Woodward said the “most sinister pressure” he and Bernstein felt during Watergate “was the repeated denial” by Nixon’s White House “of the information we were publishing” as the scandal deepened.

Also in that chat, Woodward said of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men:

“The movie is an incredibly accurate portrait of what happened.”

Oh, sure, it is.

Even that Post review, which called the movie journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes, noted that All the President’s Men “over-glamorizes reporting, oversimplifies editing and makes power appear the only proper subject for a newsman’s pen.”

WJC

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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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