W. Joseph Campbell

Woodward and Bernstein: The ‘only superstars newspapers ever produced’?

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 16, 2012 at 5:11 am

The 40th anniversary of the debut of the Watergate scandal falls in two months and we’re certain read many effusive tributes to the Washington Post’s reporters who often —  but wrongly — are said to have exposed the scandal and brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

It’s a safe bet that many of the tributes to the Post and its Watergate reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will be exaggerated and erroneous.

Take, for example, this passage, which appeared over the weekend in a column in the Toronto Sun:

“The only superstars newspapers ever produced were Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post investigative team who broke the Watergate story that led to the downfall of U.S. president Richard Nixon.”

Maybe they were the only superstars of newspaperdom, although that claim might provoke an argument from the committee at New York University that recently selected 100 outstanding U.S. journalists of the past 100 years. (The list included several dubious entries, such as the self-important Christiane Amanpour of CNN; photojournalist and probable fraud Robert Capa; mythmaking writer David Halberstam, and broadcast journalism’s flawed saint, Edward R. Murrow.)

Woodward and Bernstein made NYU’s rather predictable list, too.

If they are newspapering’s lone superstars, their self-promotion had a lot to do with it.  Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, came out in June 1974, about two months before Nixon’s resignation.

The book, a months-long best-seller, had been written with the movies in mind; the cinematic version of All the President’s Men came out in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein.

But more important than Woodward and Bernstein’s superstar status is the claim in the Sun’s column that they “broke the Watergate story.”

They did no such thing.

The signal crime of Watergate — the June 1972 burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — wasn’t broken by the Post. The break-in was interrupted by police and within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex.

The story in the Post about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and its opening paragraph made quite clear that details were from investigators:

“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.”

Watergate reporting by the Post did not expose the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in or the payment of hush money to the burglars, either.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, which includes a chapter about the media myths of Watergate, Woodward was quoted in 1973 as saying that those crucial aspects of the scandal were “held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward: 'held too close'

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover or disclose the existence of the White House audiotaping system, which was decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

The tapes secretly made by President Richard Nixon captured him approving a plan in June 1972 intended to thwart the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in.

That contents of that tape — the so-called “smoking gun” of Watergate — sealed Nixon’s fate and directly led to his resignation in August 1974.

The White House taping system had been disclosed 11 months before, not by Woodward and Bernstein but by investigators of the Senate select committee on Watergate.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein later claimed to have had a solid lead about the taping system.

In All the President’s Men, the book, Woodward recalled having spoken with Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee about the lead.

Bradlee advised:

“I wouldn’t bust one” in checking it out.

Had they followed the lead, Woodward and Bernstein may well have broken a pivotal story about Watergate.

But they didn’t.


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