W. Joseph Campbell

Woodward’s latest Trump book prompts myth-telling about Watergate

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 22, 2020 at 7:24 pm

It was predictable. Inevitable, even.

It was all but certain that news accounts and reviews of Rage, Bob Woodward‘s latest book about Donald Trump and his presidency, would credulously recite the hardy media myth that Woodward’s Watergate reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Not he: didn’t bring down Nixon

Sure enough, news outlets in the United States and abroad summoned the mythical trope — a trope that even Woodward has tried, occasionally, to dampen as absurd.

An editorial in the Detroit Free Press, for example, described Woodward as “famed for having brought down former President Richard Nixon.”

The New York Post, in reporting last week that Trump found Rage “very boring,” referred to Woodward and his Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, and declared they had “brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.”

The Toronto Sun likewise asserted that the Woodward and Bernstein‘s “1970s Watergate reporting … brought down Richard Nixon.”

The Guardian of London asserted in its review that Nixon was “the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

Among the more reverential if complex characterizations of Woodward and his Watergate work came the other day from Henry Zeffman, a reviewer for the Times of London, who wrote:

“Woodward is the doyen of Washington’s sober and self-regarding journalistic elite, and I am wary of criticizing someone who has won two Pulitzer prizes and brought down a president.”

The bit about Washington’s “self-regarding journalistic elite” is true enough. And the claim about Woodward having brought down a president seems irresistible, for Zeffman returns to and reiterates that point deeper in his review, calling Woodward “a reporter who felled a president.”

What intrigues Media Myth Alert is not Woodward’s take on Trump but the inclination of journalists to dust off and invoke the mythical effects of Woodward’s Watergate reporting nearly 50 years ago.

And why are they so inclined to embrace so blithely what long ago has been debunked as a media myth?

It’s a question not infrequently considered at Media Myth Alert — a question also taken up in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.

As I wrote in Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation of the Watergate scandal — “that the dogged reporting of two young, hungry, and tireless Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down Nixon and his corrupt presidency” — is endlessly appealing. The trope offers reassurance to contemporary journalists  that their reporting, too, might one day result in powerful effects.

The trope also represents “ready shorthand,” I noted, for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.” Watergate after all was a tangle of lies, deceit, and criminality, and popular understanding of the details has faded considerably since Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Even so, “to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic journalist,” I wrote, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth” — one that even Woodward has disputed.

He told an interviewer in 2004:

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

On another occasion, Woodward complained in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program 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.

“The Washington Post stories had some part in a chain of events … that were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

Woodward was right: simply put, he and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

And we would do well to take Woodward at his word.

Or the word of Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at the 25th anniversary of Watergate’s seminal crime — the botched breakin at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.

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

Indeed.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s sprawling dimensions, I noted in Getting It Wrong, “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. Only when compelled by the Supreme Court did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up [of the breakin] and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money” to the burglars and others convicted in the crime.

WJC

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