W. Joseph Campbell

A media myth eruption: WaPo, Watergate, and Nixon’s fall

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 30, 2011 at 4:55 am

Bimbo eruptions” was the memorably colorful term invoked during the 1992 presidential campaign by Betsey Wright, an aide to presidential candidate Bill Clinton, to describe the suspicions and potential allegations about Clinton’s womanizing.

Sure, he did

The past couple of days have brought an eruption of media myth — notably, the rich and appealing tale that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

Not even the Post buys into that simplistic and media-centric interpretation. As Michael Getler, the newspaper’s then-ombudsman correctly noted in 2005:

“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.”

(More coarsely, Woodward himself has declared: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”)

Even so, the media myth about Woodward, Bernstein, and the Post — the heroic-journalist myth, as I describe it in my latest book, Getting It Wrong — is so delicious and compelling that it lives on and on, as this recent eruption attests.

Figuring in the media myth eruption have been:

  • The Daily Beast, which rhetorically asked in a commentary yesterday about the phone-hacking scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s media in Britain: “Did Woodward and Bernstein need [phone-hackers and private investigators] to bring down Richard Nixon?”
  • The Daily Mirror  tabloid in Britain declared in an article posted online today that “Watergate was exposed by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.”
  • Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, which declared passage in an editorial about Murdoch’s troubles in Britain: “The Washington Post toppled President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal.”
  • The publisher of the North Platte Telegraph in Nebraska, who in a column the other day referred to the “early 1970s when the Post brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon using primarily an unnamed source.” That was a reference to Woodward’s stealthy, high-level source who was code-named “Deep Throat.”

The appearance of the heroic-journalist myth in such diverse outlets and contexts is testifies to how deeply embedded the tale has become in the popular consciousness.

And why is that?

The heroic-journalist myth, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, is “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Rather that attempting to keep straight the dimensions of a scandal that began to break nearly 40 years ago, it is fair easier to embrace the proxy version — the simplified narrative that Woodward and Bernstein took down Nixon, with help from the “Deep Throat” source.

The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret — and the subject of much speculation and many guessing games — until 2005 when W. Mark Felt and his family announced that Felt, a former FBI official, had been Woodward’s mysterious source.

The heroic-journalist myth lives on because it’s such a reassuring narrative for the news media — a tale that describes the news media at their supposed best, a time when their reporting made a powerful difference in national life.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, the notion that the Post and its reporters exposed the Watergate scandal “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a comforting trope about a purported triumph for a profession that’s more accustomed to scorn and condemnation than applause and approbation.

But it’s no less a media myth.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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