W. Joseph Campbell

Pew: Woodward, Bernstein ‘unraveled Watergate cover-up’

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 1, 2010 at 8:27 am

Bob  Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, was the single most-discussed topic in news links posted at Web logs Monday through Friday last week,  the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said yesterday.

Woodward (Library of Congress)

Pew said that 35 percent of news links at blogs during the period September 20-24 were about the book, which has received mostly so-so reviews. (For example, the Wall Street Journal said in its critique yesterday, “To read ‘Obama’s Wars’ is to feel trapped in a daylong meeting in an airless room. That’s because much of the book consists of a near-verbatim account of meetings—specifically the National Security Council meetings last fall where the administration hashed out its Afghanistan policy.”)

The book and blog posts about it are of mild interest to Media Myth Alert.

What caught this blog’s attention was assertion in Pew’s news release–duplicated in a separate release by the Project for Excellence in Journalism–that referred to Woodward as “a Washington Post associate editor and half of the famous reporting duo that unraveled the Watergate cover-up.”

That last bit, about having “unraveled the Watergate cover-up,” is in error.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein, “did not uncover defining and decisive elements” of Watergate—including the cover-up of the break-in at offices of the Democratic National Committee, the scandal’s signal crime.

The Watergate cover-up was exposed incrementally in 1973 and 1974 by the combined forces of such subpoena-wielding entities as federal prosecutors, federal grand juries, and U.S. Senate investigators. Ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court ordered President Richard Nixon to hand over audiotapes of secretly recorded conversations at the White House that unequivocally demonstrated Nixon’s guilty role in the cover-up.

The Supreme Court decision was handed down in July 1974. Nixon resigned soon after.

Woodward and Bernstein’s award-winning reporting on Watergate was published in summer and fall 1972, as the scandal slowly unfolded during the weeks and months following the break-in at Democratic headquarters.

By late October 1972, I note in Getting It Wrong, “the Post’s investigation into Watergate ‘ran out of gas,’ as Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, acknowledged.”

Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay about the press and Watergate that “it was not because of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, but because of the pressures put on the conspirators by Judge John Sirica, the grand jury, and Congressional committees that the cover-up was unraveled.”

Sirica, a federal judge, presided at the trial of the Watergate burglars that ended in guilty pleas in January 1973. Afterward, the judge “made it abundantly clear,” Epstein wrote, that the convicted burglars “could expect long prison sentences unless they cooperated with the investigation” of the Senate select committee on Watergate.

One of the burglars, James McCord, soon wrote to Sirica, saying that “perjury had been committed at the trial and the defendants had been induced by ‘higher-ups’ to remain silent,” Epstein pointed out.

McCord’s letter thus began the unraveling of the Watergate cover-up.

I discuss in Getting It Wrong factors that help account for the tenacity of the “heroic-journalist” interpretation of Watergate–the erroneous notion that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

“Media myths,” I write, “often emerge from an eagerness to find influence and lasting significance in what journalists do and tend to extend credit where credit is not entirely due.

“The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a telling example. The myth holds that the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon. In reality, the Post and other news organizations were marginal factors in unraveling the Watergate scandal.”

Media myths thus can be self-flattering; they offer heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession that is more used to criticism than applause.

Besides, claiming that Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon, or that they “unraveled the Watergate cover-up,” long ago became a ready if misleading way for journalists to distill what was a sprawling scandal.


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