W. Joseph Campbell

Didn’t: A Watergate primer

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm

“Didn’t” can be a fairly effective way of understanding contributions of the Washington Post in the Watergate scandal, to which I devote a chapter in my new mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

Nixon resigns, 1974

The Post and its reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein didn’t bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. Even principals of the Post have dismissed that notion, as note in Getting It Wrong.

They didn’t break open the cover-up that Nixon and his close aides plotted in June 1972, soon after the break-in of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex.

And they certainly didn’t expose the Watergate burglary, the scandal’s signal crime.

“Didn’t” as a way to consider Watergate occurred to me in reading an article posted online yesterday by the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegram and Gazette; the article mistakenly asserted that Woodward “exposed the 1972 Watergate break-in with colleague Carl Bernstein.”

The Watergate break-in was thwarted by Washington, D.C., police and the story began circulating within hours.

In fact, the names of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t appear in the byline of the story the Post published June 18, 1972, about the foiled break-in. Woodward and Bernstein were listed among the eight reporters who contributed the report, which carried the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter for the Post.

“Didn’t” also characterizes another element of Watergate and the Post.

The secret, high-level source called “Deep Throat,” to whom Woodward periodically turned as the scandal unfolded, didn’t advise him to “follow the money”– or, in other words, to scrutinize the contributions to Nixon’s reelection campaign as a roadmap for understanding the scandal.

“Follow the money” is one of the most memorable phrases of Watergate-era American journalism, and it was uttered by the “Deep Throat” character in the cinema version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men.

But the “follow the money” didn’t appear in All the President’s Men, the book.

According to an item posted today at the online site of National Public Radio, the phrase was “kind of made up for the movie.”

The item discussed the variety of research conducted over the years by NPR’s research librarian, Kee Malesky. It noted that NPR reporters “have asked Malesky to look up some fairly obscure, though fascinating pieces of information.”

Malesky, who discusses her research in a new book titled All Facts Considered, recalled that Daniel Schorr once asked her “to find the phrase ‘follow the money’ in the book All The President’s Men.

She was quoted as saying that “because my policy was to go to any length to get Dan Schorr what he needed, I went through the book page by page, and that phrase does not appear there.

“And then in talking to Bob Woodward and the screenwriter, William Goldman, Dan discovered that [the phrase is] actually kind of made up for the movie.”

It’s a great anecdote, nicely retold.

Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire offered a somewhat more detailed version of the anecdote in 1997, writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that Woodward and Goldman blamed each other for having made up the line.

“The screenplay was written by William Goldman,” Safire wrote. “When Schorr called him, the famed screenwriter at first insisted that the line came from the book; when proved mistaken about that, he said: ‘I can’t believe I made it up. I was in constant contact with Woodward while writing the screenplay. I guess he made it up.”’

Safire wrote that Schorr “then called Woodward, who could not find the phrase in his exhaustive notes of Watergate interviews. The reporter told Schorr he could no longer rely on his memory as to whether Deep Throat had said the line and was inclined to believe that Goldman had invented it.”

This thin slice of Watergate arcana certainly is intriguing. And it testifies to how movies can propel media-driven myths.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men is, I write in Getting It Wrong, an important reason why the heroic-journalist interpretation has become the dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal.

The movie version placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of the unraveling of Watergate while downplaying or dismissing the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

“The effect,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”


Recent and related:

  1. […] it does journalism little good to indulge in tales such as the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate or the mythical “Cronkite Moment” that offer misleading interpretations about the news […]

  2. […] I noted in a blog post last month, the line was “kind of made up for the movie,” according to an item at the online […]

  3. […] the phrase “follow the money” never figured in the Post’s Watergate coverage, which is the topic of a chapter in my mythbusting book, Getting It […]

  4. […] All the President’s Men has been a significant contributor to the misleading yet dominant popular narrative of Watergate, that the reporting of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered evidence that […]

  5. […] has it that the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal and forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation in […]

  6. […] I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t expose the Watergate scandal. It was at first a police beat story that spiraled into an intricate […]

  7. […] The Huffington Post online news site, in a thoughtful piece today about the Kaplan Higher Education subsidiary that makes the Washington Post profitable, offers up a mistaken claim about the newspaper and the Watergate scandal. […]

  8. […] reporting by the Post certainly did not bring down Nixon’s presidency. To embrace that interpretation is, I write, “to indulge in a […]

  9. […] not Woodward and Bernstein. Not the Senate select committee, […]

  10. […] money” is the best-known line associated with the Washington Post and its reporting of the Watergate […]

  11. […] reporting by the Post certainly did not bring down Nixon’s presidency. To embrace that interpretation is, I write, “to indulge in a particularly […]

  12. […] reporting of the Washington Post was marginal to that outcome, despite the message and storyline of All the President’s […]

  13. […] and Bernstein didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That was the effect of the collective if not always the […]

  14. […] Throat” uttered “follow the money” as guidance vital to unraveling the Watergate scandal. What page is it […]

  15. […] book came out in June 1974 as Watergate was approaching its climax, and was a […]

  16. […] of what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate: Disclosures by “Deep Throat” didn’t bring down Nixon’s corrupt presidency; nor did the reporting of Woodward and […]

  17. […] Didn’t: A Watergate primer […]

  18. […] at least not in the first year or so of the slowly unfolding scandal. And bringing down Nixon wasn’t a consequence of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, hoary media myth […]

  19. […] at the Watergate complex in Washington, the scandal’s signal crime. And their reporting didn’t bring about Nixon’s downfall, […]

  20. […] so compelling, because it seemed to be such crucial guidance to unraveling the dimensions of Watergate, “follow the money” made a smooth transition from cinematic fiction to the […]

  21. […] in the All the President’s Men, the book Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote about their Watergate reporting for the […]

  22. […] and Bernstein didn’t reveal the contents of that tape, which Watergate prosecutors had subpoenaed and which Nixon had […]

  23. […] the counter-narrative that 9/11 didn’t change everything has been obscure this year, it was somewhat in greater evidence at […]

  24. […] Nixon’s corrupt presidency was not brought down by the Washington Post, or by any other American newspaper — a topic I discuss in my media […]

  25. […] and Bernstein didn’t reveal the contents of that tape, which Watergate prosecutors had subpoenaed and which Nixon had […]

  26. […] I. Kutler, the preeminent historian of the Watergate scandal, was on campus yesterday to speak to a government class, and he told me after his talk that the […]

  27. […] the Post and its reporting of Watergate assuredly did not bring down Nixon, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my latest book which was published in […]

  28. […] am sure the anniversary will give rise  to a resurgence of the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, which holds that the dogged investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob […]

  29. […] reporting by Bernstein and Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward was neither central to, nor decisive in, bringing down Nixon’s corrupt […]

  30. […] the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee. This installment discusses the tenacious myth that reporting by the  Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt […]

  31. […] Washington Post brought together its legendary Watergate reporters last night for a lengthy look back at the scandal that culminated 40 years ago next week […]

  32. […] The Huffington Post online news site, in a thoughtful piece today about the Kaplan Higher Education subsidiary that makes the Washington Post profitable, offers up a mistaken claim about the newspaper and the Watergate scandal. […]

  33. […] references to the myth that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in the Watergate […]

  34. […] Holbrook’s portrayal of the journalist’s source code-named “Deep Throat” was, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “marvelously twitchy and conflicted.” And his famous line was so delivered so crisply and with such certainty that it has become perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase associated with Watergate. […]

  35. […] course, newspaper reporting didn’t have that effect. As Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period, said […]

  36. […] 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 […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: