W. Joseph Campbell

More Watergate mythologizing: Woodward, Bernstein ‘let facts speak’ and Nixon fell

In Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 21, 2019 at 5:35 pm

It’s almost predictable: When controversy flares about contemporary practices of American journalists, commentators not infrequently reach back to Watergate for reassurance about how effective and admirable high-minded reporting can be.

Nixon, 1974: Quits, leaves D.C.

The Watergate parable is ever-available if not especially precise. It’s more mythical than accurate, as a commentary the other day in the Boston Herald suggested.

The commentary’s author addressed the recent, overwrought controversy about a front-page headline in the New York Times that many of its readers, and staffers, thought was too generous to President Donald Trump.

“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism,” declared the headline, which survived only the Times’ first print edition of August 6. The newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, later termed it “a f*cking mess” that editors quickly reworked.

What interests Media Myth Alert is not so much the agitation about the Times’ headline as the Herald’s hero-treatment of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post’s lead reporters on Watergate in 1972-74.

The Herald’s commentary declared: “News reporters working for newspapers and television networks and online media should have only one job to do – to report the news.” OK, no argument there.

Then it added:

“Back in the days of Watergate, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or ‘Woodstein’ as they were called, dug deep and reported straight about the allegations that President Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“Their stories carried weight because they weren’t trying to convince us at least overtly that Nixon was a crook. These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

Let’s unpack those claims.

Woodward and Bernstein’s digging did not lead them to allege, or disclose, that “Nixon had been personally involved in the coverup of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters,” the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal. Woodward acknowledged as much in an interview in 1973 with Columbia Journalism Review.

Deep in an otherwise congratulatory article, the journalism review noted:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate], by any means. It had a piece of it. Woodward and Bernstein, for understandable reasons, completely missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants to buy their silence.” (Emphasis added.)

The article quoted Woodward as saying about those crucial elements of Watergate:

“’It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew. We couldn’t get that high.’”

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the New York Times “was the first news organization to report the payment of hush money to the Watergate burglars, a pivotal disclosure that made clear that efforts were under way to conceal the roles of others in the scandal.” And I quoted a passage in a book by John Dean, Nixon’s former counsel, as saying the Times‘ report about hush-money payments “hit home! It had everyone concerned and folks in the White House and at the reelection committee were on the wall.”

Unequivocal evidence of Nixon’s personal role in coverup was not revealed until August 1974, with the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” White House audiotape. Its release was ordered in July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and its content sealed Nixon’s fate.

He resigned 45 years ago this month.

And what else about the Herald’s commentary?

Exaggeration lurks in this passage: “These guys let the facts speak for themselves and the Nixon administration toppled.”

That suggests the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was central to Nixon’s downfall when in fact their work represented a marginal contribution to Watergate’s outcome.

Not only did could they not get to the coverup. They did not disclose the existence of Nixon’s secret White House taping system — a revelation by a former White House staffer in July 1973 changed the course and intensity of Watergate investigations.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, rolling up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and 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.”

Against the tableau of courts, prosecutors, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.

“Principals at the Post have acknowledged as much. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, often insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. ‘Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,’ Graham said in 1997, at a program marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. ‘The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,’ she insisted.”

And Woodward concurred, if in cruder terms.

To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he told an interviewer for the former American Journalism Review in 2004.

Why does all this matter now? Watergate, after all, was long ago.

Well, that’s just it: The intervening years have deeply eroded popular understanding about the forces and figures vital to bringing down Nixon — the investigators, the special prosecutors, the judges, the members of Congress. Instead, the heroic-journalist interpretation has become fixed as the dominant narrative of Watergate, that the dogged reporting of Woodward and Bernstein exposed the crimes of a president and forced his resignation.

It’s far easier to turn to that mythical interpretation than it is to keep straight the many lines of investigation that did unravel the Watergate scandal.

But as I pointed out 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.”

WJC

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