W. Joseph Campbell

They ‘lit the kindling’: New memoir exaggerates Woodward, Bernstein’s agenda-setting effect in Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 25, 2022 at 7:02 am

A new memoir by former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan praises the newspaper’s Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for having “lit the kindling” that set off investigations that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Sullivan

Such praise is misplaced. Exaggerated. A way to sidestep the tenacious media-driven myth that Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon while insisting their reporting had significant effects nonetheless.

The Woodward-Bernstein agenda-setting effect in Watergate was weak at best. The influence of their reporting, if it much existed at all, was shared influence.

After all, Woodward and Bernstein had plenty of company in reporting on the emerging scandal in the summer and fall of 1972. They very much were not alone in directing attention to suspected misdeeds of Nixon, his top aides, and officials of his reelection campaign.

While Woodward and Bernstein did some commendable reporting during those early days — such as tying the likes of former Attorney General John Mitchell to the scandal — other corporate news outlets scored significant beats as well.

The New York Times was first to report about the repeated phone calls placed to Nixon’s reelection campaign by one of the five burglars arrested June 17, 1972, inside Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The calls were made before the break-in, the crime that touched off the scandal.

The Los Angeles Times published a breakthrough report in early October 1972, based on a detailed, on-the-record account by the burglars’ lookout man, Alfred C. Baldwin III.

Correction on page 111

Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged the Baldwin story’s significance, writing in their memoir All the President’s Men that its appearance prompted them to rush into print the following day with what proved to be an erroneous, front-page report.

They identified by name three men associated with Nixon’s White House or his reelection campaign who, Woodward and Bernstein reported, had been sent “memos describing wiretapped conversations of Democratic Party officials” at Democratic headquarters.

The Woodward-Bernstein story was disputed by the men and was acknowledged months later to have been in error. The correction, as it were, appeared more than 600 days later, on page 111 of All the President’s Men, which came out in June 1974. The reporters wrote that they “became convinced” that memos the three men received “had nothing to do with wiretapping.”

The article was among the nine Watergate stories in the Post’s winning Pulitzer Prize-entry in 1973.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay in 1974 about Watergate, the Post and other newspapers were joined in summer 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and by Common Cause, a foundation promoting accountability in government, in calling attention to the emergent scandal.

Moreover, the Democratic National Committee filed a civil lawsuit against Nixon’s reelection committee, the Committee to Re-elect the President, which ultimately compelled statements under oath.

And Nixon’s hapless Democratic opponent for president, George McGovern, tried without  much success to turn Watergate into a campaign issue in 1972. At one point, McGovern declared that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate burglary. McGovern called the break-in “the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler.”

Even “in publicizing Watergate,” Epstein wrote, “the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

Even if they weren’t alone in reporting Watergate’s early days, it has been suggested that Woodward and Bernstein’s work must have influenced responses to the scandal by government investigative entities. If so, such effects are difficult to parse out.

One way to assess Woodward and Bernstein’s agenda-setting effects would be to identify traces of their reporting in the three articles of impeachment drawn up against Nixon by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. (Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 before the House could act on the articles of impeachment.)

Garrett M. Graff, author of the book Watergate: A New History, which came out early this year, has observed that the articles of impeachment did not reflect Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting.

“In the end,” Graff has written, “none of the Post’s exclusives through the summer and fall of 1972 would be part of the narrative told by a House committee in 1974 as it drew up its three articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.”

Graff characterized the impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting as “subtle, less revelatory in the moment than it seemed in hindsight.”

Moreover, the memoir by former White House counsel John Dean — titled Lost Honor and written after his felony conviction in Watergate — said nothing that Woodward and Bernstein reported in the summer and fall of 1972 particularly troubled the Nixon administration. “I can say without equivocation,” Dean wrote, “that not one story written by Woodward and Bernstein for the Washington Post, from the time of arrest [of the five burglars] on June 17, 1972, until the election in November 1972, gave anyone in the Nixon White House or the re-election committee the slightest concern that ‘Woodstein’ was on to the real story of Watergate.” [Emphasis in the original.]

What did have a powerful effect, Dean said, was Seymour Hersh’s report in the New York Times about hush money payments to at least four of the five Watergate burglars. That disclosure was published in mid-January 1973 and, according to Dean, “had everyone concerned, and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

In any case, Woodward and Bernstein had run “out of gas” on Watergate by late October 1972, according to the reporters’ closest editor at the Post, Barry Sussman. “We didn’t have a thing on Watergate for six or seven weeks after the election” in November 1972, Sussman recalled a few months later. His assessment is supported by my review of the Post’s front-page Watergate content, which revealed no major stories about the scandal from late October 1972 through the end of the year.

If anything, then, the kindling “lit” by Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting did little more than smolder.

From Newsroom Confidential

Sullivan’s memoir, titled Newsroom Confidential, also claims that Woodward and Bernstein “revealed the White House coverup of the [Watergate] break-in.”

Revealed the coverup? Not quite.

As Columbia Journalism Review noted in an otherwise hagiographic article in July 1973 about the Post and Watergate:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means; it had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.” [Emphasis added.]

The journalism review quoted Woodward as saying this about missing the coverup and hush-money payments:

“It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

WJC

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Watergate footnote: WaPo’s Pulitzer-winning entry included a false story

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2022 at 6:55 pm

The latest burst of self-congratulatory hoopla about Watergate and the Washington Post  subsided weeks ago, with the 50th anniversary of the foiled break-in that set off the country’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

Interest, of course, still percolates in the details and finer points of the scandal that toppled Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.

So allow Media Myth Alert to add a Watergate footnote with this post about a seldom-discussed oddity in the Post’s entry that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for its Watergate reporting.

The Post’s entry included an article by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that proved false.

Until recently, MediaMythAlert was unaware the false story had been part of the Pulitzer-winning package.

That it was surely is intriguing.

What makes this something less than a big deal, however, is uncertainty as to when the Post realized its error. It’s difficult to know for sure nearly 50 years later, but that realization may have come after the Pulitzers were announced in early May 1973.

The false report was published October 6, 1972, on the Post’s front page beneath the headline, “Bug memos sent to Nixon aides.”

In the article, Bernstein and Woodward identified by name three men associated with Nixon’s White House or his reelection campaign. The trio supposedly had been sent “memos describing wiretapped conversations of Democratic Party officials” at offices of Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington. The illegal wiretaps had been planted in late May 1972.

The three men denied the claims in the “Bug memos” story.

As it turned out, none of them had been sent the wiretap memos. They had been falsely accused by Bernstein and Woodward — as the journalists acknowledged in All the President’s Men, their 1974 memoir about reporting the Watergate scandal.

So how did the “Bug memos” article come to be part of the Post’s Pulitzer-winning entry?

That’s a mild mystery, and even Media Myth Alert — no friend of the mythical claim that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting brought down Nixon — finds it hard to believe the Post intentionally entered a false report.

More likely, the “Bug memos” article was thought credible at the Post until sometime after the submission deadline for Pulitzer entries in 1973. The deadline that year was February 1.

That hypothesis seems plausible, given that the Post had referred in follow-on articles in late October 1972 and in January 1973 to the central claims of the “Bug memos” story.

Doubt about the accuracy of the “Bug memos’ story can be traced to testimony at trial in January 1973 of suspects accused in the thwarted Watergate burglary of mid-June 1972, the scandal’s seminal crime.

The testimony was given January 19, 1973, by Alfred Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who who had been the lookout for the Watergate burglars arrested inside DNC headquarters.

Baldwin said in his testimony that he wasn’t sure to whom wiretap memos had been given.

The Post‘s news report about the testimony suggested Baldwin was dissembling. The article, published January 20, 1973, said: “Baldwin is reported to have told others, The Washington Post has learned, that he could remember the names of three White House or Nixon aides who received memos describing the telephone conversations.” The article then mentioned the three men, again by name.

So as late as January 20, 1973, or about two weeks before the Pulitzer-entry deadline, the Post was adhering to a belief the “Bug memos” story was accurate. That seems clear from the tone and content of the article about Baldwin’s testimony.

In a curious and rather sloppy way, Baldwin had been cited as the principal source in the “Bug memos” story. Bernstein and Woodward reported in the article that Baldwin was “known to have told the FBI” names of three men to whom the wiretap logs had been given. Bernstein and Woodward had not spoken directly to Baldwin; the allegations about the three men came from a source described vaguely in All the President’s Men as “a Democratic Party investigator.” They also wrote that the details were confirmed by “a Justice Department source” who was not identified by name.

The day before the “Bug memos” article was published, Baldwin had been the subject of a breakthrough Watergate report in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times’ account was based on a lengthy, in-person interview with Baldwin, which Bernstein and Woodward acknowledged in All the President’s Men “was a major break, not just because it contained a great deal of new information, but because it made the Watergate operation, and the siege mentality behind it, real.” It was an unprecedented, on-the-record, first-hand account by a participant in the unfolding scandal.

Bernstein and Woodward acknowledged their “Bug memos” story had been rushed into print in response to the Times’ report about Baldwin. While it wasn’t a major Watergate story, “Bug memos” turned out to be a story in major error. And a search of Washington Post contents at the ProQuest historical newspapers database does not indicate that it was specifically corrected by the newspaper.

The correction, as it were, appeared in All the President’s Men, which was published in June 1974, about 20 months after the “Bug Memos” article appeared.

“Three men had been wronged,” Bernstein and Woodward wrote in the book. “They had been unfairly accused on the front page of the Washington Post, the hometown newspaper of their families, neighbors, and friends.” They said in the book they “[e]ventually became convinced” that memos the three men received “had nothing to do with wiretapping.”

Among the men falsely accused was William E. Timmons, who in 2009 sat for an interview for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project. Timmons noted he had contemplated suing the reporters, about whom he had little good to say.

“Woodward and Bernstein accused me on the front page of the Washington Post of being one of those that received the illegal fruits of the break-in,” Timmons said, referring to the erroneous “Bugs memo” article.

“I protested and had [White House press secretary Ron] Ziegler go out in the press office and deny it. Didn’t know anything about it. … Because Woodward and Bernstein must be right, they always have sixteen sources and they are wonderful and so forth. So I protested. And so I call the general counsel to the President and I said, ‘I want to sue these guys. This is not fair that I’ve been slammed here and surely by now they know that I wasn’t involved in this thing.'”

Timmons said he was dissuaded from taking legal action. “It will just fan the fires,” he said he was advised. “This will blow over. You can’t sue.”

That advice came from then-White House counsel John Dean, who in October 1973 pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and agreed to cooperate with Watergate investigators. Dean served four months of one-to-four-year prison sentence at a small prison at a former Army base in Baltimore.

Timmons, a Republican insider, was never accused of wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. Years later, he led the would-be transition office for Bob Dole, the losing Republican candidate for president in 1996.

It remains unclear why the “Bug memos” article was included with the Post’s entry, which won the Pulitzer for public service journalism.

Discussing the matter recently by email, Woodward said: “As you may know, the entries for these prizes are made by management and I did not know what they were entering. It was their decision.”

He also said he did not know when he and Bernstein may have determined the “Bug memos” story was in error, adding that the discussion in All the President’s Men “is the only information I have about this now [as to] when we corrected the story and said, ‘Three Men had been wronged.’ It could have been done any time we were writing the book.” (Woodward said they began writing All the President’s Men in July 1973.)

Leonard Downie, who was a deputy metro editor at the Post during the Watergate period, said in by email recently that while he “was one of the editors on the Watergate investigation,” he was “too junior to be involved in the selection of stories for prize entries, and I don’t remember what was in the entry or why.”

An interesting coda to this Watergate footnote is that the Post’s Pulitzer-winning entry in 1973 included 12 additional stories identified as “supplemental reportage.”

Among them was the Bernstein-Woodward article published October 25, 1972, that wrongly attributed to federal grand jury testimony the disclosure that H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s top aide, controlled disbursements from a campaign slush fund. In All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward described their blunder as “a grievous error” and said they thought it might force them to resign.

The misstep prompted them to confront the superior of an FBI field agent in Washington with whom Bernstein had spoken about the Haldeman story. They believed the agent had misled them.

They said they realized that confronting the agent’s superior “was unethical as soon as they had done it,” according to All the President’s Men. “They had endangered the agent’s career, betrayed his trust and risked their credibility with other sources.”

Years later, in an interview with the CBS News “Sunday Morning” program, Woodward referred to the encounter with the agent’s superior as “the worst of journalism.”

WJC

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Watergate at 50: Why the ‘heroic-journalist’ myth still defines the scandal

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 16, 2022 at 8:07 am

This essay was first published at the Conversation news site on June 14, 2022, and appears here slightly edited.

In their dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That version of Watergate has long dominated popular understanding of the scandal, which unfolded over 26 months, beginning June 17, 1972.

It is, however, a simplistic trope that not even Watergate-era principals at the Post embraced. The newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham, pointedly rejected that interpretation during a program 25 years ago at the now-defunct Newseum (the “museum of news“) in suburban Virginia.

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

“Sometimes, people accuse us of ‘bringing down a president,’ which of course we didn’t do, and

shouldn’t have done,” Graham said. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham’s words, however accurate and incisive, scarcely altered the dominant popular interpretation of Watergate. If anything, the intervening 25 years have solidified the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate, which I dismantled in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.

However popular, the heroic-journalist myth is a vast exaggeration of the effect of their work.

Woodward and Bernstein did disclose financial links between Nixon’s reelection campaign and the burglars arrested 50 years ago tomorrow inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, in the signal crime of Watergate.

The Watergate complex

They publicly tied Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, to the scandal.

They won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post.

But they missed decisive elements of Watergate — notably the payment of hush money to the burglars and the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes.

Even so, the heroic-journalist myth became so entrenched that it could withstand disclaimers by Watergate-era principals at the Post such as Graham.

Even Woodward disavowed the heroic-journalist interpretation, once telling an interviewer 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.”

So why not take Woodward at his word? And why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate persisted through the 50 years since burglars linked to Nixon’s campaign were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington?

Like most media myths, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate rests on a foundation of simplicity. It glosses over the scandal’s intricacies and discounts the far more crucial investigative work of special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

It was, after all, the court’s unanimous ruling in July 1974, ordering Nixon to surrender tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor, that sealed the president’s fate. The recordings captured Nixon, six days after the burglary, agreeing to a plan to deter the FBI from pursuing its Watergate investigation.

The tapes were crucial to determining that Nixon had obstructed justice. Without them, he likely would have served out his presidential term. That, at least, was the interpretation of the late Stanley Kutler, one of Watergate’s leading historians, who noted:

“You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The heroic-journalist myth, which began taking hold even before Nixon resigned, has been sustained by three related factors.

One was Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the well-timed memoir about their reporting. All the President’s Men was published in June 1974 and quickly reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list, remaining there 15 weeks, through Nixon’s resignation and beyond. The book inescapably promoted the impression Woodward and Bernstein were vital to Watergate’s outcome.

More so than the book, the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling. The movie, which was released in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was relentlessly media-centric, ignoring the work and contributions of the likes of prosecutors and the FBI.

The book and movie introduced Woodward’s super-secret source, “Deep Throat.” For 31 years after Nixon’s resignation, Washington periodically engaged publicly in guessing games about the source’s identity. Such speculation sometimes pointed to W. Mark Felt, a former senior FBI official.

Felt brazenly denied having been Woodward’s source. Had he been “Deep Throat,” he once told a Connecticut newspaper, “I would have done better. I would have been more effective.”

The “who-was-Deep-Throat” conjecture kept Woodward, Bernstein and the heroic-journalist myth at the center of Watergate conversations. Felt was 91 when, in 2005, he acknowledged through his family’s lawyer that he had been Woodward’s source after all.

It’s small wonder that the heroic-journalist myth still defines popular understanding of Watergate. Other than Woodward and Bernstein, no personalities prominent in Watergate were the subjects of a bestselling memoir, the inspiration for a star-studded motion picture, and the protectors of a mythical source who eluded conclusive identification for decades.

WJC

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