W. Joseph Campbell

The media myths of Watergate: Part Two

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 18, 2012 at 5:42 am

This is the second of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week with
the foiled burglary at the headquarters in Washington
of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment discusses the notion
that the 
Washington Post “uncovered” the Watergate story.

Post’s Watergate story, June 18, 1972 (Ransom Center, University of Texas)

Watergate was America’s gravest political scandal. It began as a police beat story.

News of the scandal’s seminal crime — the thwarted break-in of June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. — was circulating within hours.

The opening paragraph of the Posts front-page report about the burglary, published 40 years ago today, made it clear that details had come from investigating authorities. The paragraph read:

“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.”

So it can’t be said the Post “uncovered” the Watergate story.

Nor can it be said that the newspaper “uncovered” crucial elements of the deepening scandal, which ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

Take, for example, Nixon’s secret audiotaping system at the White House.

Existence of the tapes was disclosed in July 1973 to a bipartisan select committee of the U.S. Senate (see video clip below).

The tapes were decisive to Watergate’s outcome; Watergate’s leading historian, Stanley I. Kutler, has characterized them as “the gift of the gods.”

The so-called “smoking gun” tape revealed that Nixon had approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in of DNC headquarters.

He did so in a conversation June 23, 1972, with his top aide, H.R. Haldeman. The contents of the “smoking gun” tape were made public in early August 1974, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn it over to investigators.

The “smoking gun” tape sealed Nixon’s fate and led to his resigning the presidency.

(As Kutler has noted, Nixon-White House tapes “released in 1997 clearly reveal” that the president knew about “hush money” payments to the Watergate burglars.)

Interestingly, the Post’s Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, later claimed to have had a solid lead about Nixon’s taping system — a lead they did not pursue.

They mentioned in their book, All the President’s Men, that Woodward had spoken about the tip with Ben Bradlee, then the Post’s executive editor.

Bradlee advised: “See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it.”

And they didn’t.

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

Principals at the Post often have said that the newspaper’s reporting kept the Watergate story alive during the summer and fall of 1972, a time when few other news organizations seemed interested in pursuing the scandal.

Leonard Downie, who succeeded Bradlee as executive editor, renewed that claim in a recent commentary in the Post.

For “several months after the Watergate burglary in 1972,” Downie wrote, “Woodward, Bernstein and their colleagues on the local news staff of The Post were alone on the story.

“We were ignored and doubted by the rest of the news media and most of the country, and under heavy fire from the Nixon administration and its supporters.”

It’s a heroic interpretation.

But it’s not entirely accurate.

As I point out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “The Post may well have led other newspapers on the Watergate story — principally was because Watergate at first was a local story, based in Washington, D.C.

“But rival news organizations such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times did not ignore Watergate as the scandal slowly took dimension during the summer and fall of 1972.”

The Los Angeles Times, for example, published a first-person account in early October 1972 of Alfred C. Baldwin III, a former FBI agent who acted as a lookout man in the Watergate burglary.

Significantly, the New York Times was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the burglars, a pivotal disclosure in mid-January 1973. The Times report made clear that efforts were under way to cover up and conceal the roles of others in the scandal.

John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, recalled in a memoir published years later that the Times report about hush-money payments “hit home!”

The disclosure, Dean wrote, “had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

And as Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in a classic essay in 1974, the Post and other newspapers were joined during the summer of 1972 by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a foundation that seeks accountability in government office, in directing attention to the scandal.

Moreover, George McGovern, Nixon’s hapless Democratic challenger for the presidency in 1972, not infrequently invoked Watergate in his campaign appearances. At one point in the summer of 1972, McGovern charged that Nixon was “at least indirectly responsible” for the Watergate burglary.

So in the summer and fall of 1972, the Post was one of several institutions seeking to delineate the reach and contours of Watergate.

The Post, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “was very much not alone.”


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