W. Joseph Campbell

‘Spiegel’ thumbsucker invokes Watergate myth

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2010 at 10:20 am

In the fallout from the Wikileaks disclosure of 25o,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, commentators seeking a point of reference sometimes have turned to what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel is the latest to do so, offering up the Watergate myth in a thumbsucker about Wikileaks, posted in English yesterday at its online site. The commentary–titled “Is Treason a Civic Duty?”–included this passage:

“The Washington Post, whose reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein once exposed the Watergate affair, describes WikiLeaks as a ‘criminal organization.'”

That passage has two significant problems.

First, searches of the LexisNexis database produce no reference to the Post or its online affiliate washingtonpost.com having taken an editorial view that Wikileaks is a “criminal organization.”

Indeed, just last Sunday the Post declared in an editorial that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange acted “irresponsibly” in releasing the cache of diplomatic cables. “But that does not mean he has committed a crime,” the Post added.

The newspaper did run a column in August by Marc A. Thiessen who called Wikileaks “a criminal enterprise. Its reason for existence is to obtain classified national security information and disseminate it as widely as possible–including to the United States’ enemies.”

But Thiessen is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who writes a weekly op-ed column for the Post. As such, he hardly sets or expresses the newspaper’s editorial policy.

Second, and far more pertinent to Media Myth Alert, is the reference in the Spiegel essay to Woodward and Bernstein’s having “once exposed the Watergate affair.”

They didn’t.

The seminal crime of the Watergate scandal was a break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The crime was thwarted by local police and word of the arrest of five Watergate burglars began circulating within hours.

The Post reported on June 18, 1972:

“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

Woodward and Bernstein were listed as contributors to that report, which carried the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter.

The reporting of Woodward and Bernstein didn’t expose the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in or the payment of hush money to the burglars, either. As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, Woodward was quoted as saying in 1973 that those crucial aspects of the scandal were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein expose or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system that proved so pivotal to Watergate’s outcome.

Audiotapes secretly made by President Richard Nixon captured his approving a plan to impede the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary and related crimes. The taping system was disclosed by investigators of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which convened hearings during spring and summer 1973.

The U.S. Supreme Court in July 1974 ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor; he complied. The tapes’ contents forced him to resign the presidency.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, against “the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein [in exposing the Watergate scandal] were modest, and certainly not decisive.”

I also point out that principals at the Post have acknowledged as much” over the years. They have sought from time to time to dispute the notion the newspaper brought down Nixon.

So Watergate is indeed a misleading point of reference in assessing the Wikileaks fallout.

Especially wrong-headed is the eagerness to ascribe great significance in the Wikileaks disclosures, including those of last summer. There was interest then in characterizing the leaks of Afghanistan war logs as another “Cronkite Moment.” Which they weren’t.

After all, the original “Cronkite Moment” of 1968 was a media-driven myth.

The Wikileaks disclosures–especially the recent release of diplomatic cables–have proven to be remarkably unshocking.

The cables have tended to confirm what many people who follow (and teach) foreign affairs and foreign policy have long known or suspected: The Saudis are fearful of the Iranian nuclear program and want it dismantled; the Chinese aren’t too keen about Kim Jong Il and his ilk in North Korea; Russia under Vladimir Putin has become a mafia regime; Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is a buffoon.

None of that comes as a shock or surprise.

If Assange and Wikileaks meant to sabotage U.S. foreign policy in the disclosure of the diplomatic cables, they’ve failed.


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