W. Joseph Campbell

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.

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

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

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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50 years on: Revisiting the myths of the ‘Napalm Girl,’ a photo ‘that doesn’t rest’

In 'Napalm girl', Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on June 8, 2022 at 7:12 am

This essay was first published at The Conversation news site on June 2, 2022, and appears here slightly edited.

The “Napalm Girl” photograph of terror-stricken Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial attack on their village — taken 50 years ago today — has rightly been called “a picture that doesn’t rest.”

Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

It is one of those exceptional visual artifacts that draws attention and even controversy years after it was made.

Last month, for example, Nick Ut, the photographer who captured the image, and the photo’s central figure, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, made news at the Vatican as they presented a poster-size reproduction of the prize-winning image to Pope Francis, who has emphasized the evils of warfare.

In 2016, Facebook stirred controversy by deleting “Napalm Girl” from a commentary posted at the network because the photograph shows the then-9-year-old Kim Phuc entirely naked. She had torn away her burning clothes as she and other terrified children ran from their village, Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972. Facebook retracted its decision amid an international uproar about the social network’s free speech policies.

Such episodes signal how “Napalm Girl” is much more than powerful evidence of war’s indiscriminate effects on civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image, formally known as “The Terror of War,” has also given rise to tenacious media-driven myths.

Media myths are those well-known stories about or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The distorting effects of four media myths have become attached to the photograph, which Ut made when he was a 21-year-old photographer for the Associated Press.

Prominent among the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” which I address and dismantle in my book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, is that U.S.-piloted or guided warplanes dropped the napalm, a gelatinous, incendiary substance, at Trang Bang.

Not so.

The napalm attack was carried out by propeller-driven Skyraider aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force trying to roust communist forces dug in near the village – as news accounts at the time made clear.

The headline over the New York Times report from Trang Bang said: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Own Troops.”

The Chicago Tribune front page of June 9, 1972, stated the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider diving onto the wrong target.”

Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for United Press International: “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability at Trang Bang began taking hold during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate George McGovern referred to the photograph in a televised speech. The napalm that badly burned Kim Phuc, he declared, had been “dropped in the name of America.”

McGovern’s metaphoric claim anticipated similar assertions, including Susan Sontag’s statement in her 1973 book “On Photography,” that Kim Phuc had been “sprayed by American napalm.”

(The Associated Press, in an article posted online yesterday, erroneously described the aerial attack at Trang Bang as “an American napalm strike on a Vietnamese hamlet.” See screenshot nearby. The news agency later in the day corrected the error after it was noted on Twitter.)

Two other, related media myths rest on assumptions that “Napalm Girl” was so powerful that it must have exerted powerful effects on its audiences. These myths claim that the photograph hastened an end to the war and that it turned U.S. public opinion against the conflict.

Neither is accurate.

Although most U.S. combat forces were out of Vietnam by the time Ut took the photograph, the war went on for nearly three more years. The end came in April 1975, when communist forces overran South Vietnam and seized its capital.

Americans’ views about the war had turned negative long before June 1972, as measured by a survey question the Gallup Organization posed periodically. The question – essentially a proxy for Americans’ views about Vietnam – was whether sending U.S. troops there had been a mistake. When the question was first asked in summer 1965, only 24% of respondents said yes, sending in troops had been a mistake.

But by mid-May 1971 – more than a year before “Napalm Girl” was made – 61% of respondents said yes, sending troops had been mistaken policy.

In short, public opinion turned against the war long before “Napalm Girl” entered popular consciousness.

Another myth is that “Napalm Girl” appeared on newspaper front pages everywhere in America.

Front page here, but not everywhere

Many large U.S. daily newspapers did publish the photograph. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because it depicted frontal nudity.

In a review I conducted with a research assistant of 40 leading daily U.S. newspapers – all of which were Associated Press subscribers – 21 titles placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers – more than one-third of the sample – did not publish “Napalm Girl” at all in the days immediately after its distribution by AP. These included newspapers in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Newark.

Only three of the 40 newspapers examined – the Boston Globe, the New York Post and the New York Times – published editorials specifically addressing the photograph. The editorial in the New York Post, then a liberal-minded newspaper, was prophetic in saying:

“The picture of the children will never leave anyone who saw it.”

WJC

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Drinking the ‘heroic-journalist’ Kool-Aid in run-up to Watergate’s 50th anniversary

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 7, 2022 at 8:02 am

It wouldn’t be a major Watergate anniversary without prominent references to the heroic-journalist myth — that risible, media-centric view that the Washington Post’s reporting exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Risible?

For sure.

Not exactly, Jerry Ford

Not even the Post’s Watergate principals embraced the heroic-journalist interpretation. As Bob Woodward, one of the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, proclaimed in an interview in 2004:

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

Such pointed disclaimers notwithstanding, the myth seems as robust as ever in the run-up to next week’s 50th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglary touched off a spiraling scandal.

Any more, even the Post drinks the heroic-journalist Kool-Aid.

For example, in its obituary the other day about Barry Sussman, the newspaper’s Watergate editor who died June 1, the Post said of Woodward and his reporting partner, Carl Bernstein:

“Their incremental and inexorable revelations of the political sabotage, corruption and coverup that began with the Watergate break-in helped send numerous Nixon associates to prison and ultimately precipitated Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.”

The article did not explain exactly how newspaper reporting “precipitated Nixon’s resignation.”

Of course, newspaper reporting didn’t have that effect. As Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period, said in an interview 25 years ago at the old Newseum in northern Virginia:

“Sometimes, people accuse us of ‘bringing down a president,’ which of course we didn’t do, and shouldn’t have done. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Quite so.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling the Watergate scandal “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 noted, “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 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972. Five men wearing business suits were arrested in the burglary at the Watergate complex.

Deep in the Post’s obituary about Sussman appearing a revealing passage about his assessment of Woodward and Bernstein.

“I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them,” Sussman was quoted as having said years earlier, after Woodward and Bernstein had spurned his idea about co-writing a book about Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein’s double-bylined memoir about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, was a best-seller in 1974.

The movie helped make the myth

The book and the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling and, as such, contributed mightily to the emergence and tenacity of the heroic-journalist trope.

References to the heroic-journalist interpretation have appeared elsewhere in the run-up to the 50th anniversary. An article posted yesterday at CNN declared, for example, that Woodward and Bernstein’s “groundbreaking Watergate reporting … led to the resignation of former President Richard Nixon in 1974.”

And a columnist for the New York Post — discussing the bitterness these days at the Washington Post — invoked Watergate’s heroic-journalist narrative in setting up his essay, writing:

“Two dogged reporters patiently dig into the details of a strange burglary at Democratic Party headquarters, diligently assemble facts, cultivate sources and put together a package of revelations that will lead to the first presidential resignation in history.”

Left unexplained was just how the “package of revelations” led “to the first presidential resignation in history.”

But it’s not difficult to understand why references to the heroic-journalist myth are appearing in the run-up to what is a milestone anniversary. The myth offers a convenient way of explaining the essence of Watergate — that Nixon was forced to quit — while sidestepping the scandal’s formidable tangles and complexity.

After all, media myths, invariably offer trite and simplistic versions of history.

WJC

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