W. Joseph Campbell

The journos who saved us

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 5, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Murrow: Savior?

At their extreme, media-driven myths are hero-worshipping devices, invoked to venerate journalists as saviors.

Thankfully, such treatment is rare, and typically reserved for such journalists the legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and the Watergate reporting duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Brian Unger, host of a history program on cable television, indulged in a bit of journalists-idolatry in compiling for an Entertainment Weekly blog a list of a dozen heroic figures from TV shows and the movies.

On the list was Ed Murrow, whom Unger praised for “saving us from someone who pretended to be a great American patriot, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.”

Also selected were Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, the movie stars who played Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein in the film All the President’s Men. “Armed only with a pen,” Unger wrote, “they saved the country from itself.”

Journalists as saviors: Like most media-driven myths, the notion is simply too good to be true, too simplistic to be credible.

Murrow hardly took down Joe McCarthy in Murrow’s famous See It Now program on CBS in March 1954.

The show was aired four years after McCarthy began his communists-in-government witch-hunt, and four years after muckraking columnist Drew Pearson piercingly challenged and punctured many of McCarthy’s claims.


The television critic for the New York Post, Jay Nelson Tuck, wrote that Murrow in the days after the show felt “almost a little shame faced at being saluted for his courage in the McCarthy matter. He said he had said nothing that … anyone might not have said without a raised eyebrow only a few years ago.”

Years later, Murrow’s CBS colleague, Eric Severaid, chafed at the misleading interpretation attached to the See It Now program on McCarthy which, he noted, “came very late in the day.”

Sevareid said: “The youngsters read back and they think only one person in broadcasting and the press stood up to McCarthy and this has made a lot of people feel very upset, including me, because that program came awfully late.”

As I write in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, Americans in early 1954 weren’t “hoping for someone to step up and expose McCarthy, or waiting for a white knight like Murrow to tell them about the toxic threat the senator posed.”

By then they knew, thanks to the work of journalists such as Pearson.

Murrow no more ended McCarthy’s witch-hunt than Woodward and Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in Watergate — and, as Unger wrote, “saved the country from itself.”

Whatever that means.

It is clear that Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions to unraveling the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 were modest, and pale in significance when compared to the work of such subpoena-wielding entities as special prosecutors, both houses of Congress, the Justice Department, 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” to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal.

Interestingly, principals at the Washington Post over the years have scoffed at the mythical and mediacentric interpretation that the newspaper brought down Nixon.

In 2005, for example, 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. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

Woodward, himself, declared in 2004, in an interview with American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

But undoubtedly it’s the film All the President’s Men that’s largely responsible for the heroic-journalist trope that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon and saved the country.

All the President’s Men easily is the most-viewed movie made about Watergate. And as I note in Getting It Wrong, it places “Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling while denigrating the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

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


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