W. Joseph Campbell

Jimmy Carter fumbles Watergate history

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 23, 2010 at 6:28 am

Former President Jimmy Carter went on CNN’s Reliable Sources the other day to plug his new book and offered up the heroic-journalist myth of the Watergate scandal.

Carter (1980 photo)

The heroic-journalist meme, which has become the scandal’s dominant popular narrative, maintains Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in their dogged coverage, brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

Carter invoked this media myth in response to a fairly pointed question from the show’s host, Howard Kurtz, about whether the former president felt “the press had it for you.”

Carter in reply referred to his term in office and said:

“I came in at a time when the press was in the post-Watergate period, and when two reporters in the Washington Post had become famous because they had revealed some secrets that had brought down the Nixon administration. And when I got there, shortly thereafter, I think a lot of the reporters were looking for something within my administration that might be scandalous or put them in the headlines as very notable investigative reporters.”

Hmm. “Brought down the Nixon administration.”

As notable as the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein may have been, it didn’t bring down the Nixon administration.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the work of Woodward and Bernstein was at best marginal to Watergate’s outcome–the resignation of Nixon in 1974 and the eventual jailing of nearly 20 of his top aides and reelection campaign officials.

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension,” I note in Getting It Wrong, “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 add:

“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 and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

I further point out in Getting It Wrong that the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate “has become the most familiar storyline” of the scandal, because it is such an effective “proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

But to indulge in the heroic-journalist interpretation, I write, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

As Carter’s comment suggests, though, the heroic-journalist trope offers an accessible and simplistic explanation for a sprawling scandal that unfolded many years ago.

It’s interesting to note that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting–for which they won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973–never disclosed the key “secrets” of the scandal.

They did not disclose the hush-money payments made in an attempt to cover up the seminal crime of Watergate, the break-in at Democratic party offices in June 1972. Nor did they disclose the existence of the taping system that Nixon had installed to record most of his conversations in the Oval Office.

So it’s really not clear what Carter had in mind in asserting that the Post reporters “revealed some secrets that … brought down the Nixon administration.”

Interestingly, Kurtz did not challenge Carter on that point. Kurtz formerly was the media writer for the Post who, in 2005, pointedly disputed the heroic-journalism myth of Watergate.

He wrote in a column for the Post:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [White House counsel] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”

That’s a fine summary of the forces that truly did bring down Nixon’s presidency.


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