W. Joseph Campbell

National Press Club invokes media myths of Watergate

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 30, 2012 at 5:45 am

The National Press Club indulged in a couple of tenacious media myths about Watergate in announcing the other day it was giving its top award to Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on what was the country’s greatest political scandal.

In its statement that Woodward will receive this year’s Fourth Estate Award, the Press Club declared that his “work on the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of an American president” — an interpretation that not even Woodward embraces.

He once told the PBS “Frontline” program that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down [President] Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And on another occasion, Woodward declared more bluntly:

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the simplified notion that Woodward’s Watergate reporting for the Post led to Nixon’s resignation serves to diminish “the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

To roll up a scandal of the dimension of Watergate required, I write, “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, 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” — recordings the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had to surrender.

So the notion that Woodward’s reporting for the Post was decisive to Watergate’s outcome is absurd.

So, too, is the subsidiary myth that Watergate reporting — and the cinema’s depiction of the Post’s coverage in All the President’s Men — made the field seem so alluring  that enrollments in college journalism programs surged as a result.

The Press Club statement about Woodward’s award invokes that myth, too, asserting that “enrollment in journalism departments rose in the post-Watergate era, especially after ‘All the President’s Men’ was made into a movie.” It was based on a book by the same title, which was written by Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, separate scholarly studies have debunked the notion of Watergate’s  propellant effect on college enrollments in journalism.

One study, conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995, said that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers.”

The study’s author, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A separate study, conducted by veteran journalism scholar Maxwell E. McCombs and published in 1988, reported that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

So why are these Watergate myths so appealing, and so tenacious, that even the National Press Club embraces them?

One reason is that they’re simplistic, easy-to-remember narratives that locate the news media heroically at the heart of unraveling America’s greatest political scandal.

Indulging in myths such as the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate also offers a subtle way of investing the Press Club award with even greater distinction.

And as I note in Getting It Wrong, the tale about how “the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s a myth that’s no doubt too resilient, too media-centric, and too widely applicable ever to eradicate.


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