W. Joseph Campbell

‘You might bring down a government’: Sure, that happens

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 11, 2010 at 7:49 am

From time to time, the Washington Post has sought to dismiss the notion that its Watergate reporting was decisive in bringing down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.

Not the Post's work

In 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the break-in at Democratic headquarters–the scandal’s seminal crime–the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, Katharine Graham, insisted it was not the Post that toppled Nixon.

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

In 2005, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote in a column: “Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

Still, the notion that the Post was decisive in Wategate’s outcome pops up occasionally. Political writer Dana Milbank, for example, referred in a column early this year to how the newspaper “took down a president.”

And yesterday, a blog item at the Post online site asserted that the newspaper’s Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, had brought Nixon down. (Update: The item, an essay, was published Sunday, December 11, in the book section of the Post.)

The essay praised the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, and stated:

“I just re-watched ‘All the President’s Men,’ which I do every year or so, and, every time, I marvel at how interesting Woodward and Bernstein’s lives were at The Post, and how well the film explains the reporting process, its doggedness and randomness, and how great an excuse it is to get out in the world and ask every seemingly obvious question you can think of (What books did the man check out?), because you never know, you might bring down a government that has it coming.

“When I watch that movie,” the writer added, “I also think about how mundane my own ‘writing life’ can be.”

As it often is for journalists.

But to write “bring down a government that has it coming” — that’s to indulge in a media-driven myth, the beguiling heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong:

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office” in 1974.

Even so, that interpretation has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate–a David vs. Goliath storyline in which the courageous reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of the Nixon administration.

The movie All the President’s Men is a central reason the heroic-journalist trope lives on.

All the President’s Men, which starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, was released in April 1976, as the wounds of Watergate had slowly begun to close.

“The movie,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “suggested their reporting was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.

“To an extent far greater than the book, the cinematic version of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.”

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

And it has become a particularly tenacious and defining media-driven myth.


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My thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post.

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