W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo move to new quarters stirs retelling of hero-journalist myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 14, 2015 at 10:34 am

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to stir up a media myth.

Consider, for example, the recent move of the Washington Post to new quarters in the capital — a move the newspaper reported on to absurd excess.

Leaving prompts myth-telling

Leaving this mythical place

The Guardian newspaper of London took up the development today in a report online, posted beneath the headline: “Washington Post bids farewell to office where it broke Watergate.”

The Guardian described the Post’s former home on 15th Street NW as the place “where Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal and brought down president Richard Nixon.” It’s almost as if any excuse will do to trot out the bromide that the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, through their dogged reporting for the Post, exposed the crimes of Watergate and forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Untenable though it is, the heroic-journalist trope has become the dominant narrative of Watergate — an engaging but simplified account of the country’s gravest political crisis that not even principals at the Post have embraced.

Woodward, for example, once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

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

On another occasion, Woodward declared that “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997: “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

True enough. So why does the myth persist? What explains its tenacity in the face of denial, repudiation, and debunking?

An important explanation is that the epic scandal has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

The heroic-journalist interpretation makes Watergate accessible.

As I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that explanation strips away the scandal’s daunting complexity, does away with the intricate investigations that slowly exposed high-level misconduct, leaving the Post, Woodward, and Bernstein as celebrated stand-ins “for understanding Watergate and its denouement.”

It’s a trope that reassures journalists, too, reminding them in these unsettled times that the work of their predecessors supposedly had significant and memorable consequences. As the inimitable media critic Jack Shafer wrote the other day, journalists are “sentimental creatures who draw on the past to self-mythologize.”

To indulge in the heroic-journalist trope is to indulge in dubious history. As I noted in Getting It Wrong, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Rolling up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate, I wrote, “required 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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate’s signal crime — the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972.

Guardian was not alone in recalling the heroic-journalist myth as the Post staff decamped a short distance to an address on K Street NW.

In a dispatch last week, the French new agency, Agence France-Presse, described the Post’s erstwhile home as “the scene of groundbreaking reporting on the Watergate scandal by young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.”

The Post’s reporting, in fact, was quite marginal to Wategate’s outcome.


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