W. Joseph Campbell

Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 9, 2011 at 7:41 am

The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center dedicated to “teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders,” offered up a myth of Watergate yesterday in an article that ruminated about Lady Gaga’s potential to “awaken her young fans to 21st century journalism.”

Gaga: Inspiring?

The Poynter piece discussed the, ahem, news that pop star Gaga would guest-edit the May 17 editions of the giveaway newspaper Metro. The freesheet is available in many large cities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Metro was launched by a Swedish company in 1995.

Of particular interest to Media Myth Alert is not so much Lady Gaga’s one-off editing adventure but the Poynter article’s reference to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, lead Washington Post reporters on the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

The article stated:

“As Lady Gaga takes her celebrity into the worlds of journalism and photography, does it bring cachet to a struggling and confused industry that might need a tad of glamour and inspiration? She certainly has encouraged her fans to blog, create videos and design costumes.

“In the 1970s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein inspired a generation to major in journalism and become investigative reporters. … Could Lady Gaga awaken her young fans to 21st century journalism?”


The notion that the work of Woodward and Bernstein “inspired a generation” of journalism students is a persistent subsidiary myth of Watergate.

There’s no evidence to support it.

I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that the subsidiary myth “lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

One study was financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995. In it, researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf reported finding that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Becker and Graf added:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

Seven years earlier, Maxwell E. McCombs reported in the Gannett Center Journal that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972. That also was the year Woodward and Bernstein published the investigative reports about Watergate that won for the Post the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service.

McCombs, a veteran mass communication scholar, further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

The appeal of the subsidiary myth, I write in Getting It Wrong, stems from the fact that it is so “easily understood: It endures because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward—too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

That is, Woodward and Bernstein made journalism seem sexy, vital, urgent. They were, after all, subjects of a major motion picture, All the President’s Men, which was based on their best-selling book by the same title.

And their reporting did bring down a corrupt president.

Or so goes the central myth of Watergate — that of the heroic-journalist. The heroic-journalist meme holds that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes and misdeeds of Richard Nixon’s presidency, forcing him from office.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, not even the Post buys into that simplistic interpretation of American journalism’s greatest political scandal.

To explain Watergate “through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth,” I write, noting:

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

Those forces typically wielded subpoenas and included special Watergate prosecutors, federal judges, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Justice Department, and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “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.”


My thanks to LittleMissAttila for linking to this post.

Recent and related:

  1. […] Read the rest here: Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga … […]

  2. […] original post here: Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga … Posted in Comentário, Media, TV | Tagged 1970s, bernstein, edit-the-may, europe, Media, […]

  3. […] the rest here: Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga … Written on April 9th, 2011 & filed under Media Tags: 1970s, bernstein, edit-the-may, europe, […]

  4. […] . . on their clackety-clack little typewriters. Inspiring! Cancel […]

  5. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  6. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  7. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  8. […] of the Washington Post and Watergate fame, has deplored what he called the “curse” of celebrity journalism, which he reportedly said has infected the news […]

  9. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  10. […] the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigative authorities, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein in the Watergate scandal fade into comparative […]

  11. […] the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic version of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post, […]

  12. […] is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared […]

  13. […] Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, writes scathingly and at length in the latest Newsweek about the phone-hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch’s media operations in Britain and prompted the closing of London’s largest Sunday tabloid, the News of the World. Bernstein (Newseum photo) […]

  14. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  15. […] so, the media myth about Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post — the heroic-journalist myth, as I describe it in my latest book, […]

  16. […] their order cited the made-up line as if it had been genuine advice from a high-level source to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post  during the newspaper’s investigation of the Watergate […]

  17. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  18. […] know,” I replied, Woodward “has said something to the effect of, ‘to say the press brought down Richard Nixon is […]

  19. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  20. […] more, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting by Bernstein and Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward was neither central to, nor decisive in, […]

  21. […] to hear that the movie, or Woodward and Bernstein’s award-winning reporting for the Post, did inspire boomers to become […]

  22. […] periodic reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage. The speculation effectively kept Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise might […]

  23. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  24. […] a subsidiary myth of Watergate, that the reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post […]

  25. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  26. […] Woodward and Bernstein did not break such crucial stories as the existence of Nixon’s audiotaping system at the […]

  27. […] what most concerns Media Myth Alert is the blithely offered claim about the work of Woodward and Bernstein — those “enterprising young reporters” to whom Rose […]

  28. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  29. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  30. […] Moreover, it is revealing and instructive to consider what were the most important Watergate articles by Woodward and Bernstein. […]

  31. […] is a tale of supposed high accomplishment inspiring to journalists, especially so at a time of sustained retrenchment in their […]

  32. […] at the decisive center of an exceptional moment in American history. Moreover, the notion that journalists can topple a president is reassuring to practitioners, especially amid the sustained retrenchment […]

  33. […] it’s hard to credit Woodward and Bernstein with having “uncovered” the crimes of Watergate. The scandal’s seminal crime […]

  34. […] Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga? […]

  35. […] is but a short step to accepting the dominant popular narrative of Watergate — the myth that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting brought down […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: