W. Joseph Campbell

Inflating the exploits of WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 21, 2011 at 2:51 am

As it has receded in time and memory, the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 has become ever more prone to myth and misleading interpretation.

Bernstein in 2009 (Newseum photo)

That helps explain why Watergate’s dominant narrative centers on the reporting exploits of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two then-young reporters for the Washington Post.

It’s far simpler to focus on two star reporters — and to inflate their accomplishments — than it is to wrestle with the forbidding complexity of a scandal that sent 19 men to jail and forced the resignation of a sitting U.S. president, Richard Nixon.

That’s a point I make in my media myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year. “How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate,” I write, “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a narrative that commands considerable appeal abroad as well.

Just yesterday, Britain’s Sky News channel became the latest news outlet to indulge in the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, declaring in a report posted online that “Bernstein was one of two reporters who revealed US president Richard Nixon’s efforts to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“It led to the conviction of a number of White House officials and Mr Nixon’s eventual resignation,” Sky’s report said.

Well, no: Neither Bernstein nor Woodward “revealed” Nixon’s attempts to cover up the burglary at the Watergate complex in Washington, the scandal’s signal crime. And their reporting didn’t bring about Nixon’s downfall, either.

Nixon’s authorization of a cover-up — to obstruct justice by attempting to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in — wasn’t clearly demonstrated until July 1974.

That was when Nixon complied with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and surrendered audiotapes of key, Watergate-related conversations that he had secretly recorded in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes clearly showed the president had engaged in a cover-up, a revelation that led directly to his resigning in August 1974.

Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting had nothing to do with the forced disclosure of the incriminating audiotapes.

Nor did Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting disclose that the tapes existed.

That Nixon had made such recordings emerged in July 1973, during the Watergate investigation by a select committee of the U.S. Senate.

To call out the erroneous Sky News report about Bernstein and Woodward is not to pick nits.

Rather, it’s to insist on a more precise understanding of the Washington Post’s modest role in Watergate — and to note how routinely that role is exaggerated.

In other words, to call out the Sky News report is to insist on what Bernstein says is journalism’s fundamental objective — that of seeking “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

And the truth is, the Post’s reporting did not disclose the cover-up Nixon ordered; nor did the newspaper’s reporting force the president’s resignation.

To roll up a scandal of the dimension of Watergate, I point out in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I add, “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.”


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