W. Joseph Campbell

Perceptive observations about Woodward, Bernstein, media power

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 9, 2011 at 5:26 am

From time to time at Media Myth Alert, I’ve noted how American media myths have been embraced with gusto by news outlets overseas.

Watergate and the notion that the investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency have particularly powerful myth appeal among news media abroad.

So it’s commendable when an international news organization treats consensus narratives about the U.S. media with decided skepticism, as the Independent newspaper in London did over the weekend.

In a commentary by Patrick Cockburn, the Independent noted that the news media have “always been more dependent on the powers-that-be” than they prefer to acknowledge.”

“American journalists outside Washington often express revulsion and contempt at the slavish ways of the Washington press corps,” Cockburn wrote. “But it is difficult to report any government on a day-to-day basis without a cooperation that can be peremptorily withdrawn to bring critics into line.”

About the Watergate scandal, he added, perceptively:

“Woodward and Bernstein learned about Watergate almost entirely from secondary sources such as judges, prosecutors and government investigative agencies which could force witnesses to come clean by threatening to put them in jail.”

That’s very true.

Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting often drew upon, and often prominently cited, government investigators such as the FBI.

WaPo report, October 10, 1972

The Watergate report they’ve often described as decisive — an article published October 10, 1972, that characterized the scandal as “a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s re-election” — referred prominently to the FBI and the Justice Department.

(That article cited “FBI reports” in asserting that “at least 50 undercover Nixon operatives traveled throughout the country trying to disrupt and spy on Democratic campaigns.” That claim was dismissed as “absolutely false” in internal FBI memoranda, and was scoffed at by Edward Jay Epstein in his brilliant 1976 essay puncturing the purported effects of Woodward and Bernstein’s  Watergate reporting.)

And as I write in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, to characterize the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as decisive in Watergate’s outcome “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.”

I also note that such a mediacentric interpretation of Watergate “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces included special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI, I note, adding:

“Even then, 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” of the crimes of Watergate.

I argue in Getting It Wrong that debunking media-driven myths “enhances a case for limited news media influence.”

Media power, I write, “tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational. But too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

Cockburn’s commentary similarly suggested that media power can be overstated, exaggerated.

“In wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan,” he noted, “effective media criticism has tended to follow rather than precede public opinion.”

Quite so.

Walter Cronkite‘s famous on-air assessment in late February 1968 that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in the war in Vietnam is sometimes said to have shifted American public opinion about the conflict.

In reality, though, Americans had begun turning against the war months before Cronkite aired his analysis in a special report on CBS television.


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