W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo: Now drinking the Watergate Kool-Aid?

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 21, 2016 at 1:07 pm

The dominant narrative of the Watergate scandal is that dogged reporting by the Washington Post uncovered evidence that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

wapo-logoIt’s a tempting if reductive media-centric myth that principals at the Post have routinely rejected over the years. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate period, once said, for example:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do.”

Graham added, quite accurately: “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate, concurred, if less eloquently. He told the American Journalism Review in 2004:

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

'To say the press brought down Nixon ...'

Woodward: ‘To say the press brought down Nixon …’

But occasionally in recent years, the Post’s myth-avoidance on Watergate has slipped. In July 2014, for example, John Kelly, a local columnist for the newspaper, referred to Woodward’s reporting partner on Watergate, Carl Bernstein, as “the former Washington Post reporter famous for his role in bringing down a president.”

And today, the front page of the Post’sOutlook” section features an essay about the appeal of conspiracy theories; the essay closes with this passage:

“It’s worth remembering that, very occasionally, conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Just ask the two cheeky journalists at this newspaper who followed a crazy conspiracy theory and brought down a sitting president.”

The reference to “cheeky journalists,” of course, is to Woodward and Bernstein. And “crazy conspiracy theory” means the Watergate scandal (which indeed may have been a bit “crazy”). But “brought down a sitting president”? That was far beyond the power of the Post, or any newspaper, to accomplish.

As I discussed in my 2010 myth-busting book, Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions of  “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,” I noted, “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 the burglary in June 1972 that was Watergate’s seminal crime.

It’s an interpretation that essentially endorsed the view of Michael Getler who, as the Post’s ombudsman, or in-house critic, wrote in 2005:

“Ultimately, it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration. They saw Watergate and the attempt to cover it up as a vast abuse of power and attempted corruption of U.S. institutions.”

The Post’s contribution to Watergate’s outcome was marginal, the mythology notwithstanding.

Given the evidence — and the traditional reluctance of principals at the Post to embrace the mythical narrative of Watergate — it’s puzzling why “Outlook” editors allowed the erroneous “cheeky journalists” passage into print.

We’ll see if the Post publishes a correction.


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