W. Joseph Campbell

NYTimes errs, claims Woodward, Bernstein ‘unraveled’ Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 10, 2011 at 1:55 am

The New York Times inaccurately declared over the weekend that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “unraveled the Watergate affair.”

The Times’ erroneous assertion was made in an obituary published Saturday about a minor figure in the Watergate scandal, Kenneth H. Dahlberg, who died last week. Watergate led to the resignation in 1974 of President Richard M. Nixon.

The obituary noted that Dahlberg was an “unwitting link between the Nixon re-election campaign and the five men … charged with breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington,” the scandal’s signal crime.

Dahlberg, the Times added, “had been a fund-raiser for Nixon’s re-election campaign, and his name was on a $25,000 cashier’s check that had been deposited in the bank account of one of the burglars, Bernard L. Barker. The money was to help cover the burglars’ expenses, and Mr. Barker had withdrawn that amount in $100 bills. He was carrying more than $5,000” when arrested at the DNC headquarters June 17, 1972.

The Times then asserted:

“Bob Woodward, a young reporter for The Washington Post who with Carl Bernstein unraveled the Watergate affair, has called the Dahlberg check the ‘connective tissue’ that turned what they thought was a story about a common crime into one of historic dimensions.”

That may be, but the Dahlberg connection was only a small, early step in unwinding the scandal. Interestingly, Dahlberg receives one, passing mention in Stanley I. Kutler’s exhaustive, single-volume work, The Wars of Watergate.

What’s more, Woodward and Bernstein scarcely can be credited with having “unraveled” Watergate — and the Times offered no evidence to support its exaggerated claim.

Rather, the Times effectively sidled up to the beguiling “heroic-journalist myth,”  which, as I write in my latest book,  Getting It Wrong, has become “the most familiar storyline of Watergate.”

What unraveled Nixon’s presidency wasn’t the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein for the Post but the incontrovertible evidence of his culpability in the crimes of Watergate — evidence captured on audiotapes that he secretly made of his conversations at the White House.

The decisive evidence — known as the “Smoking Gun” tape — revealed that Nixon at a meeting with his top aide, H.R. Haldemann, on June 23, 1972, sought to deflect or derail the FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary.

Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal the contents of that tape, which Watergate prosecutors had subpoenaed and which Nixon had refused to surrender until 1974, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered him to do so.

Nixon with tape transcripts, 1974

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the existence of Nixon’s secret audiotaping system, which proved so crucial to Watergate’s outcome.

The taping system was revealed in July 1973, during hearings of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Watergate.

In All the President’s Men, their book about their Watergate reporting, Woodward and Bernstein said they had received a tip about the taping system a few days before its existence was made public.

According to All the President’s Men, Ben Bradlee, then the Post‘s executive editor, suggested not expending much energy pursuing the tip. And Woodward and Bernstein didn’t.

What really “unraveled” Watergate, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was 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, despite all that scrutiny and pressure, Nixon, I argue, “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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