W. Joseph Campbell

In Wikileaks, a hint of Watergate? Not so much

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 1, 2010 at 12:30 pm

It was just a matter of time before someone found a hint of Watergate in the recent, massive Wikileaks disclosures of sensitive U.S. diplomatic traffic.

Voilá. A commentary posted today at examiner.com invokes such a linkage in arguing that leaked cables describing Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s misconduct underscore the importance of turning him from office.

The commentary refers to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who reported on Watergate for the Washington Post, and asserts that Wikileaks disclosures “add to the well-documented trail of President Karzai’s abuse of Presidential power and his incessant attempts to exceed his constitutional authority.

Nixon quits, August 1974

“I have written before and shall point out again,” the commentary’s author stated, “that there is … the same amount of evidence derived from open source intelligence alone to impeach Karzai as Woodward and Bernstein had amassed to force Nixon to resign.”

Of keen interest to Media Myth Alert is not so much Karzai’s brazenness but the extravagant claim about the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, that they “amassed” evidence to “force” Nixon’s resignation. He quit in 1974.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, their reporting had at best only a marginal effect on the outcome of the scandal, in which 19 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail.

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension,” I write 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.”

Efforts of that dimension were required to uncover evidence implicating Nixon and his top aides in what was a sprawling scandal.

And even then, Nixon likely would have served out his second term if not for secret audiorecordings he made of many conversations in the Oval Office–conversations that captured his guilty role in authorizing a coverup of the Watergate scandal.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I note, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”

So against that tableau, the contributions of Woodward, Bernstein, and the Washington Post recede to minor significance: They were not decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

But because the scandal was so intricate, and because it is no longer a day-to-day preoccupation, the details have become blurred and what I call the “heroic-journalist” interpretation has taken hold as the dominant popular narrative of Watergate.

And that’s the endlessly appealing notion–propelled by the mediacentric motion picture All the President’s Men–that Woodward and Bernstein’s tireless and dogged reporting brought down Nixon.

The heroic-journalist interpretation, I write in Getting It Wrong, “has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate,” noting that it’s “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

It’s a view that’s widely held. Even the New York Times, the keenest rival of the Washington Post, has embraced the heroic-journalism interpretation of Watergate.

Interestingly, though, principals at the Post have over the years disputed the notion the newspaper was decisive in Nixon’s fall.

Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate period, said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the foiled burglary at Democratic national headquarters that touched off the Watergate scandal:

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

And Woodward, himself, has concurred, if in earthier terms.  In an interview several years ago with American Journalism Review, Woodward declared:

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


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