W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Watergate myth’ Category

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

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‘Television made all the difference’ in McCarthy’s fall, Watergate? Hardly

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Newspapers, Scandal, Television, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 29, 2019 at 6:21 pm

The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, offered the facile observation in an essay yesterday that last week brought “a tectonic shift of media attention, [with] every major television network — broadcast and cable alike — focused on a deeply damaging story” about President Donald Trump, a story he “can’t control.”

Sullivan

As if Trump could “control” the frenzy over disclosures he encouraged Ukraine’s president to investigate shady dealings in that country by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

As if anyone could “control” such a bizarre frenzy.

We’ll see how long this latest frenzy lasts. For now, allegations of Trump’s misconduct seem too nebulous to support impeachment, let alone conviction after trial before the Republican-controlled Senate.

Of keener interest to Media Myth Alert were passages in Sullivan’s column that touted the presumptive power of television in the downfall of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 and in the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

McCarthy at map; Welch, head in hand

“Television,” she wrote, “made all the difference in 1954, as it did again almost two decades later during the televised Watergate hearings, with their disastrous effect on Richard Nixon’s presidency.”

Television made all the difference?

That interpretation may of comfort or reassurance to journalists; media-driven myths tend to be that way. But it’s mediacentric claim that grants television far too much credit as a decisive force in national politics.

If anything, television was a lagging factor in challenging McCarthy and his communists-in-government witchhunt. As for the Watergate hearings, it wasn’t their televised character that had a “disastrous effect” on Nixon’s presidency; it was what the hearings uncovered that was decisive to the outcome of the Watergate scandal.

Let’s take first Sullivan’s claims about television and Joe McCarthy.

She wrote: “The moment of truth for McCarthy … came in televised hearings when a lawyer for the U.S. Army shut down the senator with his damning accusation: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?'”

That encounter took place June 9, 1954. It hardly “shut down the senator.”

The hearing transcript, excerpts of which the New York Times published the following day, show that McCarthy was quick to reply to the “no sense of decency” remark by the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch.

“I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch,” McCarthy snapped.

“I’ll say it hurts,” Welch said.

McCarthy then launched into a riff about a communist-linked organization to which a young colleague of Welch once belonged.

What were known as the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. But only then-fledgling ABC and the dying Dumont network carried the hearings in sustained fashion. Neither network reached a nationwide audience.

Besides, McCarthy was then falling from his peak influence. As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, opinion polls by the Gallup organization showed McCarthy’s approval ratings were ebbing by late 1953 and early 1954.

The other television moment often said to have been pivotal in the senator’s downfall came on March 9, 1954, when Edward R. Murrow devoted his half-hour See It Now program to a critical report about McCarthy. See It Now made devastating use of unflattering footage of the senator and closed with Murrow’s declaring:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”

It wasn’t a decisive moment, though. More important were the Army’s allegations, raised the same week the Murrow program aired, that McCarthy and his top aide, Roy Cohn, tried to obtain special treatment for David Schine. He was a member of McCarthy’s investigative staff who had been drafted into the Army. The allegations led to the hearings that Sullivan mentioned in her column.

By the end of 1954, McCarthy had been censured by the Senate.

Television came belatedly to the McCarthy scourge. For months, even years before 1954, print journalists such as Drew Pearson, a nationally syndicated columnist and Richard Rovere, a writer for the New Yorker, had directed attention to the McCarthy’s exaggerated allegations.

In fact, Pearson’s challenges were so searching and aggressive that they prompted McCarthy to physically assault the columnist in the coat-check room after a dinner in December 1950 at the hush-hush Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon, then a newly appointed U.S. Senator, broke up the one-sided encounter between the beefy senator and the smaller columnist.

In his memoir RN, Nixon recalled that Pearson “grabbed his overcoat and ran from the room” while McCarthy said, “‘You shouldn’t have stopped me, Dick.’”

Televised coverage of the extended Watergate hearings, convened in Spring 1973 by a Senate select committee, certainly was extensive andriveting. But the greatest contribution came from what the committee staff uncovered — the existence of audio tapes that Nixon secretly had made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes proved conclusively that Nixon knew about and approved a plan to divert the FBI’s investigation into the scandal’s signal crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

Without the tapes, it’s not likely Nixon’s guilt in Watergate would have been conclusively demonstrated. That was the interpretation of, among others, Watergate’s preeminent historian, Stanley I. Kutler.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” he said in a presentation in 2011, almost four years before his death.

“You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The tapes, not TV, “made all the difference” in Watergate.

WJC

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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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Newspaper rant deplores ‘debasement of reality’ but invokes prominent media myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 8, 2019 at 8:54 am

The Seattle Times seemed almost apoplectic the other day in deploring “the debasement of reality” in “the age of Trumpism,” declaring that “lies” have become “the new currency of political discourse.”

It was a long-form screed alright, which appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. It was not unlike many other rants written during the war between the press and President Donald Trump.

Journos didn’t do it

What most interested Media Myth Alert was not so much the hyperventilating as the credulous reference to the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate — that reporters brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

“The American press didn’t have a spotless record in the past,” the Seattle Times article asserted, adding:

“But more often than not, reporters got it right, from uncovering the ghastly conditions in slaughterhouses [presumably a reference to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle] to forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

Uh-huh: “forcing a president’s resignation in the Watergate scandal.”

The allusion, of course, is to the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post; around them revolve the heroic-journalist trope, the mythical dominant narrative of Watergate.

But forcing Nixon’s resignation in Watergate wasn’t the work of Woodward and Bernstein. Or of any journalist or news organization.

As Woodward once said, in an interview with the old American Journalism Review:

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

Or as Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor during Watergate, once declared:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

No, the forces essential to rolling up a sprawling scandal like Watergate required, as I noted in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, the collective if not always the coordinated efforts of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

And even then, Nixon likely would have completed his presidential term if not for revelations about the audiotape recordings he secretly made of his conversations in the Oval Office of the White House — 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 the June 1972 break-in at Democratic National Headquarters, the Watergate scandal’s seminal crime. Nixon resigned in August 1974.

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

And this by no means is a new 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 had cast a highly skeptical look at the notion the Washington Post was central to Watergate’s unraveling.

Not long after Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, the best-selling book 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 why does the hero-journalist myth persist? Why is it so often invoked, and credulously so, despite having been repeatedly debunked over the years?

It lives on for several reasons, including the need to support claims that the news media are decisive actors in American culture and political life.

But as I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational” and “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.”

What’s more, I noted, media myths tend to be “self-flattering, offering heroes like Woodward and Bernstein to a profession more accustomed to criticism than applause.”

WJC

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Say, CJR: Never hurts to check your archives

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on September 17, 2018 at 7:12 am

It may seem picky to dispute claims that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “exposed the coverup” the Nixon administration put in place to deflect investigators’ attention from the scandal’s signal crime, the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

But, really, it isn’t picky, because to credit Woodward and Bernstein with unraveling the coverup is to distort and exaggerate their marginal overall contributions to uncovering Watergate.

Thus, this post, which calls attention to such a claim in Columbia Journalism Review’s takeout about Woodward’s new book, the latest to describe a chaotic Trump administration.

The journalism review article says that Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting for the Washington Post, “used the most famous anonymous source in American history — FBI Associate Director Mark Felt a.k.a. ‘Deep Throat’ — to expose the cover-up behind the Watergate burglary that unraveled Nixon’s presidency.”

Expose the cover-up?

Woodward: ‘We couldn’t get that high’

That’s not what happened.

Felt, who periodically spoke with Woodward about Watergate in 1972 and 1973 (and never met Bernstein until many years after Watergate), did not provide such information.

For confirmation, Columbia Journalism Review needed only to consult its archives.

Its July/August 1973 issue carried a lengthy and hagiographic account that saluted Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” who “slew Goliath.” The article was an early expression of the trope that Woodward and Bernstein were vital to bringing down the corrupt presidency of President Richard Nixon — a tenacious media myth that’s debunked in my book, Getting It Wrong.

Deep in the journalism review’s article in 1973 appeared this passage:

“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.”

The journalism review then quoted Woodward as saying about those aspects 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 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.” 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 guilty role in coverup wasn’t revealed until August 1974 and the disclosure of the so-called “smoking gun” secret White House audiotape, the release of which was ordered in late July 1974 by the U.S. Supreme Court order. The tape’s content sealed Nixon’s fate.

Consulting its archives might have prevented Columbia Journalism Review from claiming inaccurately that Woodward and Bernstein exposed the Watergate coverup. And this advice is not empty. Consulting the archives, reading-in to see what has been written, is a fundamental first step for journalists. Or ought to be.

Besides, as I write in Getting It Wrong, reading what was written can be an antidote to media-driven myths.

“Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past,” I note. “Never has American journalism’s record been more readily accessible. Reading what was written makes it clear that the War of the Worlds radio broadcast [in 1938] created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Murrow’s critique of McCarthy [in 1954] was belated and unremarkable.”

Reading what was written makes clear that exposing Watergate’s coverup was not the work of Woodward and Bernstein.

WJC

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‘Chappaquiddick,’ the movie: Muddled character study

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Reviews, Scandal, Watergate myth on April 9, 2018 at 9:30 am

Chappaquiddick, the docudrama revisiting Senator Ted Kennedy’s misconduct following a late-night automobile accident in July 1969 that killed his 28-year-old female passenger, was released over the weekend to larger-than-expected audiences and not-bad reviews.

The film’s release also was accompanied by a bit of carping from a Kennedy apologist who characterized Chappaquiddick as a distortion, as bad history.

Such complaints are fair enough, when accurate. Plenty of American history has been distorted by the cinema.

The movie version of All the President’s Men, for example, fueled the media myth that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the crimes that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

More recently, Steven Spielberg’s The Post mythologized the presumed courage of the publisher of the newspaper — the Washington Postthat trailed the New York Times in reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the government’s classified history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for its reporting on the case.

The carping about Chappaquiddick came in a prickly commentary in the Times that claimed the movie “distorts a tragedy” in revisiting Kennedy’s actions leading to the watery death of Mary Jo Kopechne — one of the late Robert Kennedy’s female campaign staffers, six of whom Ted Kennedy and friends invited to party on Chappaquiddick Island off Martha’s Vineyard in mid-July 1969.

Kennedy, who was married, and Kopechne, who was not, left the party together, with the senator behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile sedan.

According to Kennedy’s accounts, he made a wrong turn, drove the sedan down an unpaved road and off a wooden bridge spanning Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick. The car flipped before landing in the water. Kennedy (played by Jason Clarke) escaped the sunken Oldsmobile and made it back to his hotel room in Edgartown, across a ferry channel from Chappaquiddick.

Kopechne (Kate Mara) died alone inside the car.

The incident — and the success of Kennedy and his minions in thwarting thorough investigations of his conduct — are at the dramatic heart of Chappaquiddick.

If anything, though, the movie shows too little of the fecklessness of local authorities whose deference allowed Kennedy to escape with a suspended two-month jail sentence for leaving the scene of a deadly accident. Power enabled by privilege was Chappaquiddick’s amoral takeaway.

Chappaquiddick would have been a powerful film had it presented a withering, focused look at the privilege and power that got the senator off the hook and safely away from criminal jeopardy.

The Times commentary chafed at the movie’s treatment of Kennedy, whom Massachusetts voters returned to the U.S. Senate seven times after the Chappaquiddick scandal.

“Contrary to the film’s implications,” says the commentary, written by Neil Gabler, “Mr. Kennedy immediately and forever after felt deep remorse and responsibility for the accident; it haunted him. By the end of his life, however, the then white-maned senator had managed to transcend celebrity and emotional paralysis and become what he had long aspired to be: an indispensable legislator whose achievements included the 18-year-old vote, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“His was a large-life, tragic and multidimensional figure, and it could have made, and perhaps someday will make, for an expansive novel or film about sin and redemption,” adds Gabler, who is working on a biography of Ted Kennedy.  Chappaquiddick, he writes, “is not that movie. Instead of excavating Kennedy for larger artistic aims, it eviscerates him for narrow voyeuristic ones.”

How hagiographic. How beside the point.

Chappaquiddick could have been a withering and unsparing examination of a scion of privilege, a national figure who had a long history of drinking to excess and of treating women badly, and who by his own admission acted reprehensibly in the hours after driving the Oldsmobile off the bridge.

As it is, the film is a somewhat muddled character study, in part because of gaps in the narrative — gaps that persist because the senator was never compelled to explain fully what happened on that summer’s night 49 years ago.

Despite it shortcomings and occasional indulgence in dramatic license, the movie presents the incontrovertible main elements of the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, namely that:

  • Kennedy left the party with a young woman not his wife. Kennedy later said he was driving her to the ferry that would take her to Edgartown and her hotel. But Kopechne left behind at the party her purse and motel room key.
  • Kennedy did not immediately call for help from police or rescue workers after escaping the Oldsmobile in Poucha Pond.
  • Kennedy did not report the accident for 10 hours — until Kopechne’s lifeless body had been found in the submerged sedan.
  • Kennedy’s loyalists sought to pitch the episode as another tragedy for Kennedy’s family.
  • Kennedy was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident, not the far more serious charges of manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter.
  • Kennedy’s ambitions to become president were derailed by Kopechne’s death; he sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1980 but was soundly beaten by the incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

As Leo DaMore wrote in Senatorial Privilege, an incisive and detailed study of Chappaquiddick, “In his pursuit of the presidential nomination, Kennedy had run against Chappaquiddick. And Chappaquiddick had won.”

So why is a movie about the Chappaquiddick scandal worth making nowadays? Principally because Chappaquiddick, and Kennedy’s misconduct, have receded in popular consciousness. Kennedy, who late in his life was celebrated fulsomely as a “lion of the Senate,” lived until 2009, 40 years after Kopechne’s death.

A more honorable man than he would have resigned in July 1969 and left public life.

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2017

In 'Napalm girl', Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 26, 2017 at 8:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2017 to the appearance of a number of well-known media-driven myths, which are prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a rundown of the five top posts of the year at Media Myth Alert, which was established at the end of October 2009, a few months before publication of the first edition of Getting It Wrong. An expanded second edition of the mythbusting book came out in late 2016.

Vox offers up myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ in essay about ‘fake news’ (posted July 6): “Fake news” was much in the media in 2017, and in addressing the phenomenon, the online site Vox invoked one of the media myths associated with the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of June 1972.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Vox  asserted that the image showed “a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

It was not a U.S. bombing. As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports made quite clear at the time.

For example, a veteran British journalist, Christopher Wain, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned the girl and others is false, but enduring.

And Vox has not corrected its error.

The photographer who took the “Napalm Girl” image, Nick Ut of the Associated Press, retired from the news agency at the end of March 2017.

After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy (posted February 23): We are certain to hear fairly often about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in 2018, especially around the 50th anniversary in February of the on-air editorializing by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who famously declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite’s assessment is said to have been so powerful and shocking that it came as an epiphany for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was in tatters.

It’s a compelling story of media influence. But it’s hardly what happened.

Not only did Johnson not see Cronkite’s special report when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks afterward, mounting an aggressive and outspoken defense of his policy while making clear he had not taken the Cronkite’s message to heart — if he was aware of it at all.

Just three days after Cronkite’s program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

In mid-March 1968, Johnson told a meeting of business leaders in Washington: “We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

A few days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So at a time when Cronkite’s view about Vietnam should have been most potent and influential, Johnson remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war. On several occasions, the president effectively brushed aside Cronkite’s assessment and encouraged popular support for the war effort.

Johnson’s assertiveness at that time is little remembered, while the “Cronkite Moment” remains one of American journalism’s most enduring and appealing media myths.

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews (posted October 14): Long before its release in late September 2017, Peter Landesman’s biopic of Watergate’s mythical and most famous secret source, W. Mark Felt, was ballyhooed in the Hollywood press as a “spy thriller.”

The movie was grandiose in its title, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” But its script was a tedious mess that offered no coherent insight into Watergate or what really toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Felt, who was played by Liam Neeson, was a top official at the FBI who in 1972 and 1973 conferred periodically with Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal. In All the President’s Men, a book about their Watergate reporting for the Post, Woodward and Carl Bernstein referred to Felt as “Deep Throat.”

Felt’s clandestine meetings with Woodward took place in a parking garage in suburban Virginia and became the stuff of legend — not to mention media myth.

About the time he was conferring with Woodward, Felt was authorizing illegal break-ins — known at the FBI as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of fugitives of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for approving illegal entries and searches. He was tried with an FBI colleague; both were convicted and ordered to pay fines. They were pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

A far better biopic about Felt could have been developed around his criminal misconduct in investigating the Weather Underground. Such a movie could have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt wielded for a time at the FBI. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding cinematic treatment that was rewarded with no better than modest receipts at the box office.

WaPo’s media writer embraces Watergate myths (posted October 7): The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret for more than 30 years — until Felt and his family revealed in 2005 that he had been the secret source. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, took the occasion to offer an important reminder about Watergate and the forces that had ended Nixon’s presidency.

Getler wrote in a column in June 2005 that “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

In October 2017, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, revisited the lessons of Watergate in an essay in Columbia Journalism Review — and embraced the trope that the Post and Woodward and Bernstein were central to bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

In her essay, Sullivan declared, without documentation, that Woodward and Bernstein had “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.’”

Woodward and Bernstein most certainly did not uncover Nixon’s obstruction. That was revealed in 1974, not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president can be heard approving a scheme to divert the FBI’s investigation into the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — the signal crime of Watergate.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account that the Columbia Journalism Review published in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

Deep in that article was a passage noting that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up: “It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew.

We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was hardly decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

And Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review remain uncorrected.

Imagining Richard Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ for Vietnam (posted November 14): About two weeks before Minnesota Public Radio dismissed him for inappropriate workplace behavior, storyteller Garrison Keillor wrote an essay in which he imagined paying a return visit to New York City of 1961.

The thought was “unbearable,” he wrote, because “I’d have to relive the 1963 assassination [of President John F. Kennedy] and stay in grad school to dodge the draft and hear Richard Nixon say that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

Were he somehow to make a return to the ’60s, Keillor would never hear Nixon touting a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Certainly not as a campaign pledge for the presidency in 1968 when, as a hoary media myth has it, Nixon cynically proclaimed having a “secret plan” to end the war.

But in fact, Nixon pointedly disavowed such a claim.

In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he also was quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But it was neither a topic nor a plank of his campaign that year, and that is clear in reviewing search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search period was January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, and search terms were “Nixon” and “secret plan.” No articles were returned in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Had Nixon touted a “secret plan” during his campaign, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Keillor’s odd musings about returning to the ’60s were not the first time he’s indulged in media myth.

In a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast aired on NPR in April 2015, Keillor asserted that “in 1898,” newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst “sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, featuring Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war,” is one of the best-known in American journalism. But it is apocryphal, for reasons addressed in detail in the opening chapter of Getting It Wrong.

WJC

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‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews

In Cinematic treatments, Newspapers, Reviews, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 14, 2017 at 1:31 pm

Mark Felt is a movie worse than its many negative reviews.

It’s a tedious biopic about Watergate’s most famous anonymous source that fails to offer anything close to a coherent interpretation of America’s gravest political scandal of the 20th century.

The subtitle asserts that Felt — celebrated as Bob Woodward‘s highly placed “Deep Throat” source during Watergate — was the “man who brought down the White House.” But that exceedingly dubious claim is not  much addressed — let alone supported — in this headache-inducing mess of a movie.

No one who sits through Mark Felt will come away with a cogent understanding about Watergate and what really brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

And that perhaps is its most acute failing.

The movie offers a badly mashed-up timeline of Watergate; suggests that the Nixon White House coverup of the scandal nearly succeeded when it was amateurish and wobbly, and provides no sense at all about the array of forces that closed in on Nixon. The movie is about a career G-man (played grimly by Liam Neeson) who leaked to the press, ostensibly to protect his beloved FBI from Nixon and his skulking, disreputable top aides.

Woodward’s character, played by Julian Morris, is amusingly callow and in a couple of brief appearances comes across as more stenographer than searching journalist. Mark Felt grants considerably more face time to Sandy Smith of Time magazine’s Washington bureau, a veteran journalist to whom Felt also leaked.

But as the credits roll, it’s not hard to think that director Peter Landesman missed an opportunity to shoot a far better movie about Felt.

Landesman’s portrayal notwithstanding, Felt was no heroic whistleblower. He was no noble character; the far better movie would have depicted Felt more accurately as a cunning G-man not above breaking the law.

The far better movie would have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt for a short time wielded at the FBI.

The far better movie would have been developed around Felt’s criminal misconduct as the agency’s acting associate director, authorizing illegal breakins — known as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of Weather Underground fugitives.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for illegal entries and searches in New York City and Union City, N.J. Indicted with him for conspiring to violate civil rights of American citizens were former FBI acting director L. Patrick Gray and Edward S. Miller, former head of the agency’s counterintelligence unit.

Felt and Miller were convicted, ordered to pay fines, but pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. Charges against Gray were dropped.

Felt died in 2008, a few years after outing himself as Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source during Watergate.

The “black bag jobs” were conducted in late 1972 and early 1973, roughly the time Felt was speaking with Woodward of the Washington Post about Watergate. Felt and Miller later said the warrantless entries were justified for reasons of national security.

Landesman’s Felt doesn’t ignore the FBI’s illegal activities, but seems to excuse them because the Weather Underground’s bombings were increasingly worrisome. The radical group detonated timebombs in washrooms at the Capitol in March 1971, the Pentagon in May 1972, and State Department in January 1975.

A parallel track of the far better movie would have explored but censured the Weather Underground, a violent, far-left terrorist group led by the likes of Bernadine Dohrn and her husband, Bill Ayers. They escaped  federal prosecution for their most serious crimes because crucial evidence against them had been gathered through illegal telephone surveillance.

Dohrn and Ayers became professors, he at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she at Northwestern University Law School. They were early supporters of Barack Obama as he began his climb from Chicago to the presidency. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sought to distance himself from Ayers, calling him “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”

The far better movie also would have zeroed in on Felt’s efforts to undermine Gray during the so-called FBI war of succession following J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May 1972.

By leaking to Woodward and Sandy Smith, Felt sought to discredit Gray and thus enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position, an interpretation Max Holland persuasively presented in his book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.

Felt lost out and retired in 1973, the year before Nixon resigned.

A far better movie could have been made. The material was there. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding and confusing cinematic treatment that’s been aptly rewarded with modest box office receipts.

WJC

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WaPo media writer embraces Woodward-Bernstein Watergate myth

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 7, 2017 at 7:58 am

A dozen years ago, just after Watergate’s famous anonymous source, “Deep Throat,” had outed himself, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, offered a timeless reminder about Watergate and the forces that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

“Ultimately,” Getler wrote in his column, “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

Nixon quits: Not the Post’s doing

Now, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, has returned to the lessons of Watergate and in doing so embraced the heroic-journalist trope that the Post and its then-young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were crucial to bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Writing in the latest number of Columbia Journalism Review, Sullivan asserts that Woodward and Bernstein  “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.'”

There’s a lot of myth in those unsourced claims.

Let’s unpack them.

First, it’s hard to credit Woodward and Bernstein with having “uncovered” the crimes of Watergate. The scandal’s seminal crime — the thwarted break-in at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in mid-June 1972 — was at first a police beat story.

The Post and other news organizations reported on the foiled break-in the day after it happened. The Post’s article carried the byline of Alfred E. Lewis; Woodward and Bernstein were listed among the story’s contributors.

The decisive crime of Watergate, the one that brought Nixon’s downfall, was his obstructing justice in attempting to divert the FBI’s investigation of the break-in.

Nixon’s obstruction most certainly was not “uncovered” by Woodward and Bernstein. It was disclosed not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president is heard approving the diversion scheme.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That much was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account published, yes, in the Columbia Journalism Review in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

The journalism review lauded Woodward, Bernstein, and their editors at the Post in an article titled, “The Washington ‘Post’ and Watergate: How two Davids slew Goliath.” The subtitle referring to Woodward and Bernstein as “two Davids” was an early expression of the heroic-journalist interpretation that has long since became the dominant narrative of Watergate.

Deep in the article was a passage saying that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up:

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

The article also pointed out, correctly:

“The Post did not have the whole story [of Watergate] by any means.”

That observation was effectively confirmed while the issue of Columbia Journalism Review was in circulation: In mid-July 1973, a former White House aide, Alexander Butterfield, told the Senate select committee investigating Watergate that Nixon secretly taped his Oval Office conversations, starting in 1971.

It was an explosive disclosure, a pivotal development — and a story that Woodward and Bernstein did not break.

So can it be said their Watergate stories, which won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post in 1973, also “helped to bring down a president,” as Sullivan claims? Maybe marginally, very marginally. At best.

What ended Nixon’s presidency was clear evidence that he had approved the plan, brought to him in June 1972 by his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, to divert the FBI investigation. And that evidence emerged from the White House tapes, not from pages of the Washington Post.

Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review represent something of a break with views of the Post‘s Watergate principals, who insisted over the years that the newspaper did not take down Nixon.

Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during Watergate, said in 1997, for example:

“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.”

The Post’s executive editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, spoke similarly about the newspaper’s role in Watergate, insisting that “it must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.” (He was referring to the White House tapes that revealed Nixon’s guilty conduct.)

And Woodward said in an interview in 2004 with the now-defunct American Journalism Review:

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

Graham, Bradley, and Woodward in his earthy way all were correct.

To roll up a scandal of Watergate’s dimensions, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “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.”

And against the tableau of subpoena-wielding investigators, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein recede in significance.

It surely is not excessive, in discussing the heroic-journalist myth, to include a reminder of the ethical lapses Woodward and Bernstein committed in pursuing the Watergate story. These lapses are typically forgotten these days, even though some of them were acknowledged in All the President’s Men, the book about their Watergate reporting.

Woodward and Bernstein recounted in the book their failed attempts to entice federal grand jurors to violate oaths of secrecy and discuss testimony the grand jurors had heard about Watergate.  The reporters conceded these efforts were “a seedy venture” that nonetheless had the approval of top editors at the Post, including Bradlee.

According to  All the President’s Men, Woodward “wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself.” Such qualms notwithstanding, they went ahead with what they described as a “clumsy charade with about half a dozen members of the grand jury.”

The overtures to grand jurors to violate secrecy commitments were soon reported to federal prosecutors who in turn informed John Sirica, chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you,” the Post’s lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, told the reporters, according to All the President’s Men. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”

Bernstein also acknowledged in All the President’s Men that he sought and obtained information from otherwise private telephone records. It was, as media critic Jack Shafer once wrote, a matter of Bernstein’s having knowingly crossed an ethical line.

And in an interview with CBS News in 2004, Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged having ratted out an FBI source to his superior.

“So you deliberately blew a source,” said David Martin, the CBS interviewer. “What’s the ethics of that?”

“Probably not terribly good,” Bernstein replied.

WJC

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WaPo’s ‘myths about Watergate’ article ignores the scandal’s best-known mythical narrative

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on May 22, 2017 at 12:49 pm

The Washington Post’s commentary section yesterday presented a rundown about five “most persistent” myths of Watergate.

Trouble is, the article unaccountably ignored the scandal’s most prominent and tenacious myth — that the Post’s reporting brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Instead, the article addressed hackneyed claims such as “Watergate was politics as usual; Nixon just got caught” or obscure arguments such as “Nixon could have quieted the scandal by firing employees.” The sort of stuff few people find especially compelling.

Washington Post illustration

What many people do embrace is a claim often repeated in the news media in America and abroad.

And that is the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, the mythical go-to narrative that the Post and its intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, unearthed the incriminating evidence that forced Nixon to resign in disgrace in August 1974.

It’s a hardy, media-centric trope that pops up frequently in news outlets both prominent and relatively obscure.

It’s also a narrative rejected by those who ran the Post as the scandal unfolded from 1972-74.

For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher at the time, insisted that the Post did not topple Nixon. “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” she said in 1997. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward has concurred, if in earthier terms, telling an interviewer in 2004:

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

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong (an expanded second edition of which is out now), credit for bringing down Nixon belongs to the federal investigators, federal judges, federal prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, the Supreme Court, and others who investigated the scandal and compelled the testimony and uncovered the evidence that led to Nixon’s resignation.

Against that tableau, I write in Getting It Wrong, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

The “myths of Watergate” article published yesterday made its nearest approach to the heroic-journalist narrative in addressing the notion that Woodward’s high-level secret source, code-named “Deep Throat,” was “pivotal to Nixon’s downfall.”

Of course he wasn’t.

Deep Throat” was self-revealed in 2005 as W. Mark Felt who, for a time, had been second in command at the FBI.

Felt conferred with Woodward periodically in 1972 and 1973, sometimes in a parking garage in the Washington suburb of Rosslyn, Virginia. Typically, “Deep Throat” passed on to Woodward, or confirmed for him, piecemeal evidence about the scandal as it unfolded. At least that’s the version Woodward offered in The Secret Man, his book about Felt.

A far more prominent Watergate myth about “Deep Throat” is that he advised Woodward to “follow the money” in unlocking the intricacies of Watergate.

Follow the money” may be the single best-known quotation associated with Watergate (rivaled, perhaps, by Nixon’s statement in November 1973 that he was “not a crook”).

“Follow the money” was born of dramatic license, a line written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting.

“Follow the money” was memorably uttered by the actor Hal Holbrook, who in the movie was outstanding in playing a conflicted, twitchy, and tormented “Deep Throat.”

Holbrook delivered his “follow the money” lines with such assurance and confidence that it seemed to offer a roadmap to understanding and unraveling Watergate.

But even if Woodward had been counseled in real life to “follow the money,” the advice would have taken him only so far.

It wouldn’t have led him to Nixon.

What forced Nixon from office was not the mishandling of funds raised for his presidential reelection campaign but evidence of his plotting to cover up the signal crime of Watergate, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.

That evidence was contained in one of the many audiotapes Nixon secretly made of his conversations at the White House from 1971 to 1973. The existence of the tapes was disclosed not by Woodward and Bernstein but by a former White House official, Alexander Butterfield, in testimony before a U.S. Senate select committee in July 1973.

Twelve months later, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender the tell-tale “Smoking Gun” tape to the Watergate special prosecutor, precipitating the president’s resignation.

WJC

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