W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo ‘broke the Watergate scandal’? No way

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 17, 2011 at 7:04 am

I like to see blogs calling out the Washington Post, an unevenly edited shell of its former self.

The “Texas on the Potomac” blog did just that the other day, calling out the Post for misidentifying two Houston congressmen named Green.

But in adding a snarky dig of its own, the blog committed a more notable lapse, declaring that the Post “broke the Watergate scandal.”

Here’s what the blog post said:

”Oops! The Washington Post has apologized to Houston congressmen Al Green and Gene Green for mixing them up in its coverage of last week’s controversial House hearing on Muslim extremism. At the hearing, you’ll recall, Al Green criticized Republicans for focusing on Islamic terrorism while ignoring other forms of terrorism such as the Ku Klux Klan.

“But the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal identified the Houston congressman as Gene Green.”

Oops, indeed. Flubbing the identities of the congressmen Green was unfortunate; more troubling was declaring that the Post “broke the Watergate scandal.”

It did no such thing.

The signal crime of Watergate — the June 1972 burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — wasn’t broken by the Post. The break-in was interrupted by police and, within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The story in the Post about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and its opening paragraph made clear that the information came from investigators:

“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.”

Watergate reporting by the Post did not 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, which includes a chapter about the media myths of Watergate, Post reporter Bob 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 his Watergate reporting colleague Carl Bernstein uncover or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system, which was decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

Audiotapes secretly made by President Richard Nixon captured him approving a plan in June 1972 to impede the FBI in its investigation of the Watergate break-in.

That contents of that tape — the so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and led to his resignation in August 1974.

The White House taping system had been disclosed 11 months before, by investigators of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which convened hearing in spring and summer 1973.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein later claimed to have had a solid lead about the existence of the taping system.

In All the President’s Men, the book he wrote with Bernstein, Woodward recalled having spoken with Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the lead. Bradlee advised, “I wouldn’t bust one on it.”

Had they followed that lead, Woodward and Bernstein may well have broken a pivotal story about Watergate.

But they didn’t.

So, clearly, the disclosures about the pivotal events that led to Nixon’s resignation in Watergate weren’t the work of the Post.

As I’ve noted in previous postings at Media Myth Alert, it’s intriguing to note how the Post from time to time has sought to emphasize that its reporting was not decisive in Nixon’s resignation.

In 2005, for example, Michael Getler, then the newspaper’s ombudsman, wrote:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

And Bradlee, the executive editor during Watergate, said on a “Meet the Press” interview show in 1997, 25 years after the break-in:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”


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