W. Joseph Campbell

Impeachment hearings prompt media references to heroic-journalist myth of Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 27, 2019 at 9:01 am

It doesn’t take much for journalists to conjure the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. The trope has such narrative power that it’s easy to invoke, if usually too good to check.

Perhaps an inevitable by-product of the recent bombshell-free and wholly unrevealing impeachment hearings conducted by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee were news media references to the Watergate scandal and the myth that the Washington Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Not the Post’s doing: Nixon quits

That’s the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate. It centers around the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, and it was invoked blithely.

Last week, for example, the Guardian of London referred to the Post as “the paper that owned the [Watergate] story and ultimately brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

As the House committee’s hearings were about to go public, David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun, wrote that televised hearings during the Watergate scandal “didn’t bring [Nixon] down,” but “the grinding, steady work of the Washington Post led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did along with some courageous members of Congress, who signaled their willingness to vote for impeachment across party lines.”

A speech the other day at the University of Oxford was the occasion for Cameron Barr, the Post’s managing editor, to recall Watergate. His remarks included this myth-evocative passage:

“Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by our coverage of the political scandal known as Watergate.”

Brought to pass?

That means caused to happen, and the Post’s reporting didn’t cause Nixon’s resignation to happen.

For years, in fact, senior staff at the Washington Post dismissed or scoffed at the mythical notion the Post’s reporting brought down Nixon.

None other than Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, declared in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of the scandal’s seminal crime, the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972:

“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.”

In starkly cruder terms, Woodward concurred, telling an interviewer in 2004:

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

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal as sweeping and complex as Watergate required the combined if not always coordinated forces of special prosecutors and federal judges, FBI agents, and bipartisan congressional panels. Not to mention the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that Nixon had to surrender to prosecutors White House audiotapes that captured his guilty participation in the Watergate coverup.

That’s what Katharine Graham was referring to in saying that the “processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

By email, I asked Barr about evidence supporting his claim that “Nixon’s resignation was brought to pass by” the Post’s reporting.

He replied by parsing his claim, saying:

“You’ll note that I didn’t say that The Post brought down Nixon or took Nixon down or got Nixon – those mischaracterizations [sic] my colleagues have rejected and rightly so. As do you.

“I said The Post’s reporting brought it to pass, and my evidence for that is the historical record. We did our jobs as journalists, setting in motion other factors and forces that compelled him to step down.”

Not only did the Post’s reporting not bring to pass Nixon’s resignation, it’s highly unlikely that the Post’s reporting set in motion, or even much contributed to, the vastly more important investigations by subpoena-wielding authorities who did uncover the evidence that brought to pass Nixon’s resignation.

As Edward Jay Epstein pointed out in his classic essay about the news media and Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein “were not the only ones publicizing the case” in the summer of 1972. “Immediately after the arrest of the Watergate burglars and throughout the [presidential] campaign, Senator George McGovern denounced Watergate in most of his speeches and suggested in no uncertain terms that the White House was behind the burglary.”

Additionally, Epstein noted, the Democratic National Committee brought a civil lawsuit against Nixon’s reelection committee. “The General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, and Common Cause, a quasi-public foundation, meanwhile forced Republican officials to disclose information about campaign contributions which indirectly added to the publicity about Watergate,” Epstein wrote, adding:

“In short, even in publicizing Watergate, the press was only one among a number of institutions at work.”

Epstein also correctly noted that federal prosecutors had developed “an airtight case” the the Watergate burglars and their handlers in the summer of 1972, “well in advance of, and without any assistance from, Woodward, Bernstein, or any other reporters.”

Barr’s remarks at Oxford were an occasion to extol the news media and what he called “high-risk, high-impact journalism.”

He also shed some light on the adoption of the Post’s smug and heavy-handed motto, “Democracy dies in darkness,” saying it was embraced “at the urging of Jeff Bezos, who has owned The Post since 2013.” Bezos is the multi-billionaire boss of Amazon.com.

That motto was adopted soon after President Donald Trump took office and was promptly ridiculed by, among others, Jack Shafer, the prominent media critic. Shafer said on Twitter that “‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ is something a sincere goofball would say in a Preston Sturges movie.”

The executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, said “Democracy dies in darkness” reminded him of “the next Batman movie.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

%d bloggers like this: