W. Joseph Campbell

WaPo review indulges in myth, claims Bernstein’s ‘work brought down a president’

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 16, 2022 at 10:00 am

You’d think editors at the Washington Post might have turned to statements by its Watergate-era principals before allowing a mythical claim about the scandal to appear in a book review that was published today.

The claim appears in a predictably favorable critique of Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History, a memoir about his early days in journalism.

The book, the Post’s review notes, “doesn’t mention Watergate. The occasional references to [President] Richard Nixon have nothing to do with the scandal that Bernstein” reported on with Bob Woodward for the Post in the early 1970s.

“Bernstein has no interest in retelling an already well-known tale,” the review assures us. “Instead of the staccato just-the-facts brag you might expect from an investigative reporter whose work brought down a president, ‘Chasing History’ is a lovingly detailed memoir composed in a humble register.”

Media Myth Alert is only faintly interested in a memoir by Bernstein, a bloviating commentator for CNN nowadays. It’s the review’s unsourced passage, claiming his “work brought down a president,” that commands attention. (The review appears today on the first page of the Post’s “Outlook” section; see image nearby.)

The brought-down-a-president claim not only is mythical; it runs counter to unequivocal statements by the likes of Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during the Watergate period; by Ben Bradlee, the newspaper’s executive editor at that time, and by Woodward, himself.

At the 25th anniversary of the seminal crime of Watergate — the foiled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington in June 1972 — Graham asserted at a program at the former Newseum in suburban Washington:

“Sometimes, people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do, and shouldn’t have done. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Bradlee likewise rejected the simplistic notion that the Post’s Watergate reporting brought down Nixon’s presidency, saying in 1997 that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon.

Bernstein

“The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Bradlee was referring to the White House tapes which Nixon secretly made and which revealed the president’s guilty role in attempting to cover up crimes of Watergate. The disclosures forced Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

And Woodward once asserted, in an interview with the now-defunct American Journalism Review:

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

Woodward was right. Rolling up a multidimensional scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the collective (if not always coordinated) efforts 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 presidential term if not for revelations about the existence of the White House tapes  — a pivotal Watergate story that Woodward and Bernstein missed, by the way.

“Only when compelled by the Supreme Court,” I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of Watergate crimes.

Against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigations, bipartisan congressional panels, and the Supreme Court, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in importance. They were marginal to Watergate’s outcome.

And this by no means is a novel interpretation.

The first edition of Getting It Wrong came out in 2010.

Five years before that, the Washington Post’s then-ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote:

“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.”

And in 1974, Edward Jay Epstein offered a deeply skeptical assessment of the notion the Post was central to Nixon’s fall.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, a best-selling memoir about their Watergate reporting, Epstein wrote:

“The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s autobiographical account of how they ‘revealed’ the Watergate scandals. … In keeping with the mythic view of journalism, however, the book never describes the ‘behind-the-scenes’ investigations which actually ‘smashed the Watergate scandal wide open’ — namely the investigations conducted by the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the grand jury, and the Congressional committees.”

So sources disputing what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate are not difficult to locate. But they’re often disregarded in favor of a reflexive embrace of the heroic-journalist trope, which long ago became the dominant narrative of Watergate.

The trope is, for example, “a favored theme in textbooks of journalism and mass communication,” I noted in Getting It Wrong, adding that the tale is “deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s so ingrained that its casual mention can prompt little challenge from editors. As the Post demonstrates in its book review today.

WJC

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