W. Joseph Campbell

A ‘certain American paper brought down a certain president’

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 29, 2011 at 4:14 am

It’s impressive how strictly American media myths can win such eager embrace in international contexts.

A certain American president leaves office

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a telling example.

India’s leading English-language newspaper, the Hindu, invoked that myth the other day in a commentary that declared:

“More than 30 years ago, a certain American newspaper brought down a certain president by courageously exposing his wrongdoings entirely on the strength of information supplied by an anonymous source. It was not until some quarter of a century later that the real identity of Washington Post’s source for its expose of the Watergate scandal was revealed.”

Alright, let’s unbundle that myth-freighted paragraph:

  • Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency was not brought down by the Washington Post, or by any other American newspaper — a topic I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.
  • Nixon’s fall in 1974 had nothing to do with “information supplied by an anonymous source” — a reference to the Post’s stealthy, high-level contact code-named “Deep Throat.” In 2005, a former senior FBI official named W. Mark Felt announced that he had been the Post’s Deep Throat.”

I note in Getting It Wrong that the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate — “the endlessly appealing notion that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency” — has become the dominant narrative of the greatest scandal in American political history.

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

I point out that the heroic-journalist trope “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Those forces, I write, included “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.”

But even then, Nixon likely would have served out his second term as president 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 in July 1974 did Nixon surrender the recordings that captured him plotting to cover up his administration’s ties to the burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington.

I note that the heroic-journalist interpretation “has become the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal for several reasons,” including:

Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their reporting of the unfolding Watergate scandal; the popular cinematic version of their book, All the President’s Men, and the years-long guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward (but never Bernstein) met periodically in 1972 and 1973, while investigating Watergate.

The role of “Deep Throat,” the reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, was to “confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.”

Those factors, I write, “combined to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate in popular consciousness” while projecting and reinforcing the erroneous notion that the scandal’s outcome pivoted on disclosures reported by the news media.


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