W. Joseph Campbell

Watergate a Washington Post ‘scoop’? Not quite

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 20, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Among the myths and misunderstandings associated with the sprawling scandal that was Watergate is the notion that the Washington Post owned the story.

The notion was reiterated today in a post at a blog of a North Carolina newspaper. The post, which discussed the Post‘s ongoing investigative series on U.S. intelligence networks, contained this passage:

“Newspaper editors and writers usually consider themselves patriots, but they are aware that government officials sometimes hide their actions behind the national security banner. The issue came up as the Watergate scandal was unfolding during the Nixon administration. That was also a Washington Post scoop.”

A “scoop”? Not exactly.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, “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 an unprecedented, first-person account in early October 1972 of Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who acted as the lookout man in the burglary at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972–the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

And the New York Times was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure in early 1973 that made clear that efforts were under way to cover up and conceal the crimes and misconduct of others in the scandal.

Unlike most other Watergate-related news reports in 1972 and early 1973, the New York Times story about hush money “hit home!” John Dean, former counsel to President Richard Nixon, recalled years later in a memoir titled Lost Honor. “It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall,” Dean wrote.

In addition, as Edward Jay Epstein wrote in his classic essay about Watergate and the news media, the Washington 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 public attention to the scandal.

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

And as I point out in Getting It Wrong:

“Nixon’s Democratic challenger for the presidency, George McGovern, repeatedly invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances in the summer and fall of 1972. At one point, McGovern charged that Nixon was ‘at least indirectly responsible’ for the Watergate burglary.”

So in its reporting on the emergent scandal in the summer and fall of 1972, the Post “was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate,” I write.

As the scandal unfolded, then, the Post was very much not on its own.



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