W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Scandal’

Watergate myth, extravagant version: Nixon was ‘dethroned entirely’ by press

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 24, 2021 at 7:15 am

Nixon ‘dethroned entirely’ by the press? Hardly

The mythical notion that dogged journalism brought down Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal is unshakeable in its appeal and irresistible in its application.

Seldom has the myth been presented as colorfully or extravagantly as it was in a recent Esquire UK essay pegged to the 45th anniversary of the release of All the President’s Men, the movie that did much to embed the heroic-journalist trope in popular consciousness.

“It’s easy to romantici[z]e a time when people bought newspapers and presidents could be shamed,” the essay stated. “We think of simpler as better. Which is perhaps why, on its 45th anniversary, All the President’s Men, is ostensibly heralded as something of a shiny art[i]fact from an even shinier era.

“Because back then, presidents couldn’t only be shamed by the free-ish and fair-ish press, but dethroned entirely – a rare event that serves as the true life narrative backbone of All the President’s Men as it retells the Watergate scandal and The Washington Post reporters behind its excavation.”

Dethroned entirely?

That may be a charmingly British turn of phrase.

But it’s not what happened in Watergate.

The movie All the President’s Men certainly leaves the impression Nixon was dethroned by journalism, given its focus on the characters of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the lead reporters for the Washington Post on Watergate.

But in reality, forces and factors far more diverse and powerful than Woodward and Bernstein brought about the fall Nixon and his corrupt presidency.

As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, breaking open the Watergate scandal “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.”

And even then, I noted, “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 Watergate’s seminal crime — the foiled break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in June 1972.

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

He told an interviewer in 2004, 30 years after Nixon resigned:

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

It cannot be said often enough that in their reporting, Woodward and Bernstein  missed some key developments as the Watergate scandal unfolded — notably the disclosure that Nixon had installed the secret taping system at the White House.

The existence of the tapes was revealed in July 1973, in testimony by a former Nixon aide before the U.S. Senate Committee on Watergate.

Without the tapes, it’s unlikely 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,” Kutler said in 2011, almost four years before his death.

Put another way, absent the tapes, no Nixon dethroning.

So what, then, accounts for the persistence of Watergate’s heroic-journalist myth?

Its appeal no doubt reflects a fundamental characteristic of media myths: it’s simplistic. The heroic-journalists interpretation offers easy-to-grasp version of a sprawling scandal that sent some two dozen men to jail. Embracing the heroic-journalist  trope allows the side-stepping of Watergate’s intricacies.

It’s become what I’ve called “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Hal Holbrook, ‘follow the money,’ and Watergate’s distorted history

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Quotes, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 3, 2021 at 8:48 am

The death of actor Hal Holbrook was reported yesterday and, inevitably, his cinematic portrayal of a shadowy, garage-lurking source in the Watergate scandal received prominent mention in a flurry of obituaries.

Those articles recalled Holbrook’s advice in the film All the President’s Men to “follow the money” which, in the movie, was presented as guidance crucial to unraveling the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Holbrook’s portrayal of the journalist’s source code-named “Deep Throat” was, as I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “marvelously twitchy and conflicted.” And his famous line was delivered so crisply and with such certainty that it has become perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase associated with Watergate.

Indeed, “follow the money” is a cinematic anagram that often has been taken as genuine. In fact it’s Watergate’s most famous made-up line. The urgent-sounding advice was written into the screenplay of All the President’s Men, which was adapted from a book by the Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Their book, also titled All the President’s Men, was an immediate best-seller when it came out in 1974, not long before Nixon’s resignation.

As popular as the book was, far more people have seen the movie, which has been lavishly praised over the years for its outstanding cast and for its supposed accuracy. The Post’s movie critic once declared, extravagantly:

“In the annals of Washington’s most sacred narratives, none is more venerated than ‘All the President’s Men,’ which since its release in 1976 has held up not only as a taut, well-made thriller but as the record itself of the Watergate scandal that transpired four years earlier.”

The movie as the “record itself of the Watergate scandal.”

Hardly.

Beyond injecting “follow the money” into the popular vernacular, All the President’s Men toyed with the historical record in several respects. Notably, the film:

  • embraced and elevated the mythical heroic-journalist trope, depicting the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein as vital to unraveling the scandal. In fact, Woodward and Bernstein missed key developments in Watergate, such as the pivotal disclosure of the taping system Nixon had installed at the White House.
  • minimized, and even denigrated, the decisive contributions of investigative agencies such as the FBI in exposing the crimes of Watergate. Subpoena-wielding Congressional panels also were crucial to defining the scandal’s dimensions.
  • depicted Woodward and Bernstein as having faced threats far greater than they really encountered. They were shown, for example, as taking precautions to thwart electronic surveillance presumably aimed at them by the Nixon administration. Although “Deep Throat” — who in real life was Mark Felt, a high-level FBI official — had warned them about such eavesdropping techniques, Woodward and Bernstein followed precautions such as conferring on street corners only for a short period. It “all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic,” they wrote in their book, and soon went back to their routines.

The film also blurred somewhat the personas of Holbrook and Felt, who in 2005 revealed that he had been Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source. An  essay in the Post today claimed that while Holbrook’s “follow the money” line had been made up for dramatic purposes, it “still reflected what Felt was saying without saying it.”

Interestingly, Holbrook, who was 95 when he died last month, said late in his life that he wasn’t interested in playing the “Deep Throat” source because the character was shown only in deep shadows of a parking garage. “I turned the script down because there’s nothing there,” Holbrook said in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. “You don’t see the guy and there’s nothing there. I’m not going to do it.”

Holbrook was persuaded to take the part by Robert Redford, who acquired rights to Woodward and Bernstein’s book and played Woodward in the movie. “He said, ‘Listen, Hal. People will remember this role more than anything else in the film. … I’m telling you the truth, they will remember this role,'” Holbrook quoted Redford as saying.

Holbrook said he relented and reluctantly agreed to play “Deep Throat.” He acknowledged in the interview that Redford turned out to be right about the memorable quality of the stealthy character. “He was right as rain,” Holbrook conceded. “He understood it, and I didn’t.”

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

The assault on the Capitol, and a president’s precipitous fall

In Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post on January 7, 2021 at 7:15 pm

By the time the contents of the “smoking gun” tape were made public and revealed beyond doubt his guilty role in covering up the seminal crime of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was probably doomed, politically.

The scandal — which broke in June 1972 when burglars linked to his reelection campaign were arrested inside Democratic National headquarters — was after two years of periodic disclosures pointing to Nixon’s impeachment and almost-certain conviction and removal.

The release of the so-called “smoking gun” tape in early August 1974 removed all questions about Nixon’s continuing in office. What remained of his political support evaporated. Most memorably, Congressman Charles E. Wiggins, who was among Nixon’s most ardent backers, said the tape’s content led him to the ”painful conclusion” that Nixon should leave the presidency.

He did so August 9, 1974 (and not because of the reporting by the Washington Post; the newspaper’s crucial role in Watergate is a media-driven myth).

But not even Nixon among U.S. presidents experienced such an abrupt loss of authority and political power as has Donald Trump in the past 30 hours or so, since hundreds of his supporters marched from a rally to the Capitol and forced their way in — ostensibly to protest irregularities and anomalies in the November presidential election.

The assault came as Congress was meeting to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

The intruders were apparently emboldened by Trump’s defiant remarks to the rally a short time before. “We will never concede” the loss of the election, the president declared. “It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.”

As dimensions emerged today of the deadly and almost-surreal assault on the Capitol, it became equally clear how unlikely the president is to be rehabilitated, politically. His presumed goal of reclaiming the White House in the 2024 election is now, almost certainly, foreclosed. That election is distant and much, of course, will change before then.

But the stunning assault — and accompanying images of flag-waving Trump supporters overwhelming Capitol police, smashing windows, and swarming the halls and offices of Congress — will surely persist as formidable barriers to his returning to high office.

It also has become clear that the country probably could not tolerate another frenzied four years of Trump, his narcissism, self-absorption, and frequent recitation of grievances, real and perceived. With 13 days remaining in his term, the country has reached what has been called the end of Trump.

Meanwhile, a few prominent members of his administration have resigned. Among them was Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Former cabinet officers like William Barr, who served 22 months as Trump’s attorney general, condemned the assault. Barr said it was “outrageous and despicable.”

And a Republican back-bencher in Congress, Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, declared: “All indications are that the president has become unmoored, not just from his duty, nor even his oath, but from reality itself.” Kinzinger said Trump should be removed by invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for a president’s replacement in the event of incapacitation.

Whether that happens, the hemorrhaging of Trump’s political capital was certainly remarkable in swiftness and magnitude. In that sense, Trump was even more Nixonian than Nixon.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2020

In Debate myth, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 30, 2020 at 9:29 pm

Media Myth Alert directed attention periodically in 2020 to the appearance of well-known media-driven myths, those 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’s a look at the year’s five top writeups at Media Myth Alert, a year in which corporate media’s woeful coverage of the presidential election figured prominently.

■ The shame of the press (posted October 31): As the 2020 presidential election neared, much of U.S. corporate media indulged in what I called “willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.”

They ignored, suppressed, or risibly dismissed as Russian disinformation credible allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. The effect was to shield Biden, an undeniably flawed and feeble candidate, from scrutiny and thus help him defeat President Donald Trump, whom they so deeply detest.

This conduct by corporate media, I wrote, represented “an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

“Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of ‘fie on both houses’ attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

“Not so much anymore.”

Biden’s son is suspected of arranging lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the candidate’s knowledge. But reporting in the New York Post — based on emails retrieved from a laptop computer the son abandoned at a repair shop — undercut Joe Biden’s claims of ignorance. The Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they seriously or substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reporting suggested that Joe Biden had a secret financial involvement in his son’s efforts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist regime.

“The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent,” I wrote.

Didn’t happen.

After the election, corporate media briefly lifted their blackout to report that the FBI for two years had been looking into the son’s accepting payments from international sources. The federal inquiry centers around suspected violations of tax laws.

But corporate media of course offered no apologies for their shameful rejection of journalistic curiosity in the run-up to the election.

New York Times commentary offers up that hoary 1960 debate myth (posted August 5): Some media-centric tall tales, I noted, “are just too good to die away.”

A telling example is the exaggerated claim of viewer-listener disagreement during and immediately after the first presidential debate in 1960 between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The myth has it that Nixon “won” the debate among radio listeners but because he perspired noticeably and looked bad on television, “lost” the debate among TV viewers.

Nixon on debate stage, 1960

The notion of viewer-listener disagreement was impressively demolished 33 years ago, by scholars David Vancil and Sue D. Pendell. Their article, I wrote, “remains a fine example of thorough, evidence-based debunking.”

And yet the myth of viewer-listener disagreement lives on, as an the New York Times made clear in an essay published in early August.

The essay’s author, veteran Washington journalist Elizabeth Drew, unreservedly invoked the hoary myth, writing that “Nixon was considered to have won on substance on the radio, while the cooler and more appealing Kennedy won on television.”

As I noted in the second edition of my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the myth of viewer-listener disagreement [is] one of the most resilient, popular, and delectable memes about the media and American politics. Despite a feeble base of supporting documentation, it is a robust trope” that rests more on assertion, and repetition, than on evidence.

Had television and radio audiences differed so strikingly and sharply about the debate’s winner, journalists in 1960 were well-positioned to identify and report on such disparate reactions — especially soon after the first Kennedy-Nixon encounter when interest in the debate and its novelty ran high.

But of the scores of newspaper articles, editorials, and commentaries I examined in my research about the Nixon-Kennedy debate, none made specific reference to such an audience effect. Even oblique hints about viewer-listener disagreement were few, vague, and fleeting.

Woodward’s latest book prompts myth-telling about Watergate (posted September 22): “It was predictable,” I wrote. “Inevitable, even.”

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

He didn’t bring down Nixon

And sure enough, news outlets in the United States and abroad summoned the mythical trope — a trope that even Woodward has on occasion attempted to dismiss.

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 stated that Woodward and his Watergate reporting partner at the Washington Post, Carl Bernstein, had together “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 declared in its review that Nixon was “the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.”

What explains this inclination to embrace so blithely what long ago was debunked as a media myth?

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 deeply appealing. The trope offers reassurance to contemporary journalists  that their reporting, too, just might have 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.

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 memorably told an interviewer in 2004:

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

Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out (posted January 26): Early in the year, PBS aired an “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War.

The timing of the program was puzzling: Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such retrospective programs. But nothing in January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

The producers most likely wanted to suggest that President Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy.

If that were the intent, I wrote, “the allusion was muddled. And under-developed.” And unpersuasive. Trump is a far more complicated character than McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence in the early 1950s.

The documentary also presented a conventional — and misleading interpretation — that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

As I’ve often noted at Media Myth Alert, not all prominent journalists of the early 1950s were inclined to excuse or ignore McCarthy’s excesses or soft-pedal his allegations.

Foremost among McCarthy’s foes in American journalism was Drew Pearson, a Washington-based muckraking columnist who took on the senator just days after he began his communists-in-government campaign in 1950.

Pearson was persistent in challenging McCarthy, disputing not only the senator’s red-baiting claims but calling attention to other misdeeds, such as McCarthy’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson deserved more recognition than PBS granted.

The documentary’s lone reference to the columnist came in a passing mention about his physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy was the aggressor and either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson. Contemporaneous accounts about the assault differed.

The broader point about Pearson’s reporting is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

But the documentary made no mention of Rovere at all.

Our incurious press (posted November 30): The 2020 presidential election gave rise to many curious turns in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where the election turned. These included atypical voting patterns, statistical anomalies, and extreme spikes in vote counts in Biden’s favor that took place in pre-dawn hours in key states.

These and other oddities of the election deserved corporate media’s scrutiny.

Instead, they were indifferent and dismissive, eager to wave off what may be called “the strange details” of the election — and do so without much independent inquiry. “Baseless” quickly became a favored characterization.

They seemed not to realize that the suspicions about the conduct of the election are certain to persist, clouding the putative victory of the 78-year-old Biden, who seldom strayed from his basement during the Fall campaign and whose gaffes and incoherence suggest he’s not up to the job of president.

The election’s oddities and anomalies warranted dispassionate investigation, especially as a large numbers of Americans — and more than a few Democrats among them — suspect the election was marred by tampering and suspicious conduct like the delaying and interrupting of vote-counts.

It was not as if corporate media lacked the will or interest to investigate suspicions of election anomalies and fraud. After all, the New York Times and Washington Post did share a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on vague suspicions that Trump somehow conspired with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election — suspicions that proved exaggerated, over-wrought and, in a word, baseless.

And it was not as if corporate media were chastened that their investigations of the 2016 election came a cropper. Rather, they have become so predictably partisan as to be disinclined to do anything that could bolster Trump, or damage Biden.

WJC

Other memorable posts of 2020:

The shame of the press

In Debunking, Error, Journalism education, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Scandal, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on October 31, 2020 at 11:26 pm

Eighty-two years ago, the front pages of American newspapers told of panic and hysteria which, they said, had swept the country the night before, during, and immediately after a radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds.

The program starred and was directed by 23-year-old Orson Welles who made clever use of simulated news bulletins to tell of waves of attacking Martians wielding deadly heat rays. So vivid and frightening was the program that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic and driven to hysteria.

Or so the newspapers said on October 31, 1938.

“For an hour, hysterical pandemonium gripped the Nation’s Capital and the Nation itself,” declared the Washington Post, while offering few specifics to support the dramatic claim.

“Thousands of persons in New Jersey and the metropolitan area, as well as all over the nation, were pitched into mass hysteria … by the broadcast,” the New York Herald Tribune asserted. It, too, offered little supporting evidence.

“Hysteria among radio listeners through the nation … resulted from a too realistic radio program … describing a fictitious and devastating visitation of strange men from Mars,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle.

And so it went.

As I described in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, reports of widespread panic and hysteria were wildly exaggerated “and did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide scale.”

Had Americans been convulsed in panic and hysteria that night, the resulting turmoil and mayhem surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries. But nothing of the sort was conclusively linked to the show.

The overheated press accounts were almost entirely anecdotal — and driven by an eagerness to question the reliability and legitimacy of radio, then an upstart rival medium.

There was no nationwide panic that long ago night before Halloween and the day-after coverage was an episode of collective misreporting that contributed to the rise of a tenacious media myth.

Eighty-two years later, much of mainstream corporate news media is indulging in another, even more consequential episode of misconduct that’s defined not by overheated misreporting but by willful blindness on an extraordinary scale.

Corporate media, with few exceptions on the political right, have ignored and declined to pursue allegations of international influence-peddling by the son of Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, so as to shield the flawed and feeble candidate from scrutiny and help him defeat the incumbent they so profoundly loathe.

Their contempt for President Donald Trump runs deep. Corporate media obviously recognize they cannot investigate and publish critical reporting — they cannot do searching journalism — about Biden so close to the November election without jeopardizing his candidacy and boosting Trump’s chances of reelection.

This neglect by corporate media represents an abdication of fundamental journalistic values of detachment, and impartiality. A defining ethos of American journalism that emerged during the second half of the Twentieth Century emphasized even-handed treatment of the news and an avoidance of overt, blatant partisanship.

Rank-and-file journalists tended to regard politicians of both major parties with a mixture of suspicion and mild contempt. It was a kind of “fie on both houses” attitude. Running interference for a politician was considered more than a little unsavory.

Not so much anymore. Not in American corporate media, where an overt partisanship has become not only acceptable but unmistakable.

The suspicions about Biden stem from his son’s efforts to line up lucrative, pay-for-play business arrangements in Ukraine — supposedly without the knowledge of Joe Biden. Reporting in the New York Post in mid-October was based on emails that undercut Biden’s claim of ignorance about the son’s dealings. Notably, the Bidens have not disputed the authenticity of the emails. Nor have they substantively addressed the allegations.

Subsequent reports have suggested Biden’s secret financial involvement in his son’s attempts to arrange a lucrative deal with a Chinese energy company tied to the country’s communist government.

The narratives are detailed, with many dimensions and potential implications — all which make media scrutiny all the more urgent.

But the response largely has been to shun and ignore. Or to block or impede distribution, as Twitter and Facebook did with the New York Post’s mid-October report. Or to dismiss it as so much Russian disinformation. Or scoff that it’s just a distraction. That’s what National Public Radio claimed, in a remarkably obtuse statement by its public editor (or internal critic), Kelly McBride. “We don’t want to waste our time,” she wrote, ” … on stories that are just pure distractions.”

Matt Taibbi, who is perhaps the most searching critic these days of contemporary American media and their failings, noted recently that the “least curious people in the country right now appear to be the credentialed news media, a situation normally unique to tinpot authoritarian societies.”

The inclination to shield Biden may partly stem from the shifting business model for corporate news organizations. The model used to be largely advertising-based, which encouraged news organizations to seek wide audiences by offering what was passably impartial reporting.

With the decline of advertising revenues, the business model has moved toward a digital-subscriber base. As readers pay, they are prone to make clear their preferences, and the news report tilts to reflect their partisan expectations.

Evidence of the tilt was striking enough four years ago, when Liz Spayd, an advocate of even-handedness in reporting, was public editor at the New York Times. She lasted less than a year before the position was dissolved and she was let go.

Spayd, whom I favorably mention in my latest book, Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections, hadn’t been on the job a month when she wrote this about the Times in July 2016:

“Imagine what would be missed by journalists who felt no pressing need to see the world through others’ eyes. Imagine the stories they might miss, like the groundswell of isolation that propelled a candidate like Donald Trump to his party’s nomination. Imagine a country where the greatest, most powerful newsroom in the free world was viewed not as a voice that speaks to all but as one that has taken sides.

“Or has that already happened?”

It no doubt had. And overt partisanship has become all the more evident in the past four years as the Times and other corporate media pursued such stories as Trump’s conspiring with Russia to steal the 2016 election. It was a bizarre, exaggerated tale that obsessed corporate media for three years before finally coming a cropper.

Corporate media may well protect Biden long enough for the gaffe-prone 77-year-old to gain the presidency. But the shameful exhibition of willful blindness may not end well for corporate media. Their abdication may leave them besmirched. And diminished.

WJC

More from Media Myth Alert:

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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Even in a pandemic, media myths play on

In 'Napalm girl', Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs, Scandal, Television, Watergate myth on April 26, 2020 at 10:33 am

The U.S. news media have scarcely distinguished themselves in reporting the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 54,000 Americans since spreading from Wuhan, China, early this year. Criticism abounds about the substance and tone of the media’s reporting.

Not surprisingly, a Gallup poll late last month ranked the media last among American leaders and institutions in their response to the coronavirus.

Watergate myth will never die

Even amid a pandemic, peddling media myths — those prominent stories about and/or by the media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal — has proven irresistible to some news outlets.

Familiar media myths about the presumptive “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, the exaggerated influence of the “Napalm Girl” photograph of 1972, and the hero-journalist trope of the Watergate scandal all have circulated in recent weeks.

Their appearance signals not only how ingrained these myths become in American media; it also suggests an eagerness among journalists to believe their field can project decisive influence.

Take, for example, a lengthy recent article in USA Today about staggering death tolls the country has endured before the coronavirus, in wars, disasters, and terrorist attacks.

The article mentioned the Vietnam War, which claimed 58,000 American lives, and said the conflict “had a notable turning point in the court of public opinion. It happened when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said in a 1968 broadcast that he believed the war was, at best, a ‘stalemate.’ Weeks later, President Lyndon Johnson sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.”

No evidence was offered for the “turning point” claim; no evidence was presented for the presumptive link to Johnson’s not running for another term.

On both counts, in fact, the evidence runs the other way.

Cronkite’s editorial statement, delivered in late February 1968, that the Vietnam War was stalemated was hardly a novel interpretation. “Stalemate” had been in circulation for months to characterize the conflict.

As I pointed out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, polling by Gallup indicated that the turning point in public opinion came in Fall 1967, about 4 1/2 months before Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment. By then, and for the first time, a plurality of Americans said it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam.

Other appraisals similarly indicated the turning point came in the second half of 1967.

At the end of that year, for example, Don Oberdorfer, then a national correspondent for the Knight newspapers, described what he called “a time of switching” in Summer and Fall 1967, “when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

In a very real sense, then, Cronkite’s “stalemate” observation was a matter of his following, rather than leading, American public opinion as it turned against the war.

Additionally, the USA Today article suggested that in Cronkite’s “stalemate” assessment about the war, President Johnson “sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.” But Johnson did not see the Cronkite report when it aired; the President at the time was at a black-tie birthday party for a political ally, Governor John Connally, in Austin, Texas.

And there’s no certain evidence about when or whether he saw the Cronkite program on videotape at some later date.

Factors other than Cronkite’s program weighed more powerfully in discouraging Johnson from seeking reelection. Notably, he faced a serious internal challenge for the Democratic nomination from Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. The latter entered the race for president after McCarthy’s surprisingly strong showing in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968.

Faced with the prospect of humiliating defeats in primary elections after New Hampshire’s, Johnson quit the race.

The war Vietnam gave rise to other tenacious media myths, especially those associated with the “Napalm Girl” photograph taken in June 1972. The image showed a clutch of children fleeing a napalm strike on Trang Bang, their village in what then was South Vietnam.

Near the center of the photograph was a naked 9-year-old girl, screaming from her wounds.

It is said the photograph was so powerful that it swung U.S. public opinion against the war (in fact, as we’ve seen, it turned years before June 1972) and hastened an end to the conflict (in fact, the war went on till April 1975). Another myth of the “Napalm Girl” image was that it showed the effects of a U.S. aerial attack (also false: a warplane of the South Vietnamese Air Force dropped the napalm).

To that lineup of myth, the National Interest introduced another powerful effect — namely, that  the “Napalm Girl” image “helped turn public opinion against the use” of flame-throwers as weapons of war.

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The post, however, offered no evidence of a linkage between the photograph and views about flamethrowers — which did not figure in the aerial attack at Trang Bang.

By email, I asked the editor of the National Interest for elaboration about the claim, saying: “I am interested in evidence such as public opinion polling that demonstrates or points to a linkage.”

I further wrote:

“I ask because I have addressed and disputed other claims about the photograph’s presumed impact — notably that it hastened an end to the Vietnam War, that it turned public opinion against the conflict, and that it showed the effects of a U.S. napalm attack on South Vietnam.”

The email was sent nearly three weeks ago. The editor has never replied.

Then there’s the dominant narrative of Watergate, the ever-enticing notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post uncovered evidence that brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. It’s a myth that has survived scoffing and rejection by principals at the Post — Woodward among them.

As he told an interviewer in 2004:

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

In less earthier terms, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate scandal, insisted 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.”

As I pointed out in Getting It Wrong, 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 uncovered evidence of obstruction of justice that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Against that tableau, I wrote, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were at best modest, and certainly not decisive.”

And yet, the hero-journalist myth lives on — as suggested the other day in a column by the entertainment critic for the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska. The column presented a rundown about the top films with a journalism theme. Atop the critic’s list was All the President’s Men, the cinematic adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous, best-selling book.

It’s the “best newspaper picture ever,” the Journal Star critic wrote, declaring that movie showed how Woodward and Bernstein “ferreted out the Watergate scandal and brought down a president.”

And brought down a president.

Right.

The hero-journalist trope of Watergate knows few bounds. It’s surely one of those media myths that’s never going to die.

WJC

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Flawed PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc notable for what it left out

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers on January 26, 2020 at 5:08 pm

The PBS “American Experience” documentary about Joseph R. McCarthy, the notorious red-baiting U.S. senator of the early Cold War, aired earlier this month. I have puzzled about the program since.

Timing was a source of puzzlement. Why now? Why revisit the McCarthy story in January 2020? Anniversaries can be a convenient peg for such programs. But nothing in early January was memorably associated with the McCarthy saga.

So why now? The producers no doubt wanted to suggest that President Donald Trump, in his bluster, exaggerations, and combative demeanor, is reminiscent of McCarthy.

If that were the implication, the allusion was muddled. And under-developed. Which could be because Trump is a much more complex character than Joe McCarthy, an obscure, hard-drinking Republican senator from Wisconsin who seized on his communists-in-government campaign as a ticket to prominence.

PBS ‘McCarthy’ doc: Notable for what was omitted

So the documentary was notable for what it insinuated — and for what it left out.

It embraced a conventional if misleading interpretation that the American press was unwilling to stand up to McCarthy, reluctant to challenge his thinly sourced charges about communist infiltration of the federal government.

Indeed, the press of the time depicted as complicit with McCarthy’s tactics. Sam Tanenhaus, one of the on-camera authorities presented by PBS, said as much:

“McCarthy brought out the complicity in American journalists, that we like the troublemaker and the rabble-rouser and the theatrical, spectacular figure who says the thing you’re not supposed to say, who breaks the rules, who disregards the facts. That makes for really good copy. And that’s what happened, that’s what kept McCarthy going for a long time until it all fell apart, and then he was just discarded.”

In reality, not all prominent journalists of the time were inclined to excuse McCarthy’s theatrics and allegations.

Notable among them — yet scarcely mentioned in the documentary — was Drew Pearson, an activsit, muckraking, Washington-based syndicated columnist. Pearson went after McCarthy just days after the senator launched his communists-in-government campaign, claiming in a speech in February 1950 to have names of 205 of communists in the State Department. (The number varied; McCarthy soon after claimed to have a list of 57 card-carrying communists in the agency.)

Pearson scoffed at McCarthy’s claims and wrote in a column in mid-February 1950:

“When the Senator from Wisconsin was finally pinned down, he could produce not 57 but only 4 names of State Department officials whom he claimed were Communists.” One of the four had long since been cleared, Pearson noted. Two of them had left the agency, and the fourth person had never worked for the State Department.

What’s more, Pearson wrote, McCarthy’s allegations were similar to disputed charges raised three years earlier by a Republican congressman from Michigan.

Drew Pearson

Pearson was intrusive, self-important, gossipy, and not an especially heroic figure; media critic Jack Shafer once described him “as one of the skuzziest journalists to ever write a story.” Even so, his persistent challenges to McCarthy deserved more recognition than PBS granted him.

The documentary’s lone reference to Pearson in the documentary was passing mention about his one-sided physical confrontation with McCarthy in December 1950 when the senator cornered him in the cloak room of the fashionable Sulgrave Club in Washington, D.C. McCarthy either kneed, slugged, or slapped Pearson: Contemporaneous accounts differed.

Pearson in his columns not only disputed the senator’s red-baiting claims. He called out McCarthy on other matters — including the senator’s tax troubles in Wisconsin and the suspicious financial contributions to his campaign for senate.

Pearson’s probing “embarrassed and angered McCarthy, who began entertaining thoughts of doing him harm,” I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong. At a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington in May 1950, McCarthy approached Pearson, placed a hand on his arm, and muttered:

“Someday I’m going to get a hold of you and really break your arm.”

The threat was prelude to the brief but violent encounter at the Sulgrave.

The point here is that journalists were challenging McCarthy in the early days of his communists-in-government crusade. And Pearson was not alone.

Richard Rovere of the New Yorker also was an early critic of McCarthy.

Rovere was not mentioned in the documentary.

Nor was the New York Post’s 17-part series in 1951 about McCarthy and his tactics. The series carried the logo, “Smear, Inc.” and deplored what it termed McCarthy’s “careening, reckless, headlong drive down the road to political power and personal fame” in which he had “smashed the reputations of countless men.”

The documentary made only indirect reference to Post’s bare-knuckled series, noting that the newspaper’s editor, James Wechsler, was summoned before McCarthy’s subcommittee in 1953 in what Wechsler described as “a reprisal against a newspaper and its editor for their opposition to the methods of this committee’s chairman.”

Ignoring the journalists who stood up to and challenged McCarthy’s recklessness was a shortcoming of the documentary.

Another flaw was suggesting that Edward R. Murrow’s famous if myth-encrusted television report in March 1954 about McCarthy was timed to coincide with efforts by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to defang the senator.

It may have been, but PBS offered as support only the speculation of one of its on-camera authorities, Thomas Doherty.

“My thinking,” Doherty said, “is that Edward R. Murrow got some kind of informal signal from the Eisenhower administration, that this week in March [1954], is the week in which McCarthy’s career will basically be orchestrated to be over.”

Not until December 1954 was McCarthy censured by the Senate, a move that confirmed the disintegration of his political career.

McCarthy died of alcoholism-related illness in 1957. According to the documentary, senators accompanying McCarthy’s coffin on the flight from Washington to Wisconsin played poker on his flag-draped casket.

WJC

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‘Richard Jewell,’ pack journalism, and a cinematic disappointment

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers on December 23, 2019 at 8:22 am

It’s not terribly surprising Richard Jewell the movie has fared poorly in its opening days, grossing about $9.5 million since its debut December 13.

Richard Jewell, which revisits the case of the eponymous, media-maligned hero of the deadly bombing at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, is a disappointment on a number of levels.

The lead character is a beefy, 33-year-old security guard who on July 27, 1996, raised warnings before a pipebomb packed with screws and nails blew up at Centennial Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring more than 100 others. Jewell’s warnings surely saved dozens of lives.

Jewell, who is played by Paul Walter Hauser, is quirky, officious, and rather heavy-handed — the kind of irritating, self-important security guard who routinely oversteps his position to boss people around.

Likewise unconvincing is the portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the police beat reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who, in an extra edition published July 30, 1996, disclosed that Jewell was a focus of the FBI’s investigation into the bombing.

Scruggs is presented as a loud, hard-edged floozy, willing to trade sex for information from a FBI source, who tells her the agency suspects Jewell planted the bomb. But Jewell was never charged in the bombing. Time was when journalists wouldn’t identify suspects by name until they had been formally accused.

The film, directed by Clinton Eastwood, has been assailed for its portrayal of Scruggs, which is too bad because the controversy has dimmed the spotlight Richard Jewell tries to direct to the perils that can arise when the news media are in league with federal investigators.

After Scruggs and a colleague, Ron Martz, wrote their unattributed story that Jewell was a suspect in the bombing, a media pack took after the naive and beleaguered security guard, staking out the apartment where he lived with his mother. The pack mostly made his life hell, until federal authorities told him three months later he was not a target. (The day after that, the Journal-Constitution published seven stories that dissected “everything about the case except its own role in starting the media lynching of the hero turned suspect,” Atlanta magazine reported in December 1996.)

Jewell may have been exonerated, but his reputation never recovered. He died in 2007. Scruggs died in 2001.

Pack journalism and its close relative, group think, are deep flaws that mainstream American journalism is little inclined to explore. They contributed to the media’s failure to anticipate Donald Trump’s election in 2016. For more than two years afterward, the news media touted and pursued a dubious narrative that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election  — a narrative for which the Washington Post and the New York Times shared a Pulitzer Prize.

The Pulitzer citation praised the newspapers for their “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.” The citation seems utterly risible now, given how the Trump-Russia narrative came such a cropper.

Eastwood’s movie could have been withering in portraying the media pack that hounded Jewell, a pack motivated by thin suspicions, a vague stereotype, and the Journal-Constitution’s unsourced, but authoritative-sounding, extra-edition article.

From time to time, the pack was shown in massed and menacing pursuit of Jewell. But the portrayal is not especially searching or nearly complete.

The movie doesn’t much consider the AJC’s follow-on reporting. Steven Geimann recalled in 2003 in an article for Media Ethics magazine that as “the scramble intensified to get the story, the AJC stayed in front of the pack, running countless stories not only about the investigation, but about Jewell’s personal life, work history, and potential motives as the ‘lone bomber.'”

Geimann, a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, also wrote:

“Legally, the AJC may have been allowed to treat this private citizen as a public figure. But was it the right thing to do? In the frenzy to stay in front of the pack, the editors and reporters of the AJC stopped asking themselves that simple, yet all-important question.”

Howard Kurtz, then the media writer for the Washington Post, made similar observations three weeks after the Centennial Park bombing.

In the aftermath of the attack, Kurtz noted, “few journalists asked the hard questions about the lack of physical evidence or the unwillingness of any federal official to make an on-the-record case against Jewell. In the hyper-competitive world of news gathering, such details are often lost as everyone chases the latest hot scoop.”

Kurtz deplored the “pack mentality” which he said “makes it all too easy for each news organization to blame its behavior on others. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution put Jewell in play by rushing out an extra edition July 30, with a 378-word story saying he ‘is the focus of the federal investigation’ ….

“CNN quickly followed suit. Major newspapers — including The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and USA Today — checked with their sources and trumpeted the allegations on the front page.”

Had he emphasized such criticism about the media’s pack-like conduct, Eastwood would have given his movie a sharper, more powerful, even devastating focus.

Notably absent from the media frenzy that swept up Jewell was the New York Times.

From time to time, Media Myth Alert  has called out the Times for its questionable judgment and its invoking media-driven myths. But in the Jewell case, the Times merited praise for declining to run with the pack. It not as easy decision, as Kevin Sack, the Times’ Atlanta-based reporter in 1996, pointed out several years ago.

Sack recalled that Joseph Lelyveld, the Timesexecutive editor at the time, “decreed that we would not join the news media herd in reporting that Mr. Jewell was the leading suspect. Nor would we in any way suggest that Mr. Jewell’s actions or personality merited suspicion, as The [Atlanta] Journal had in publishing, without attribution, that he ‘fits the profile of the lone bomber.’

“Instead,” Sack said, “I was to write a modest article — 642 words, as it ended up, less than half the length I figured it merited — about the media riot that followed The Journal’s revelation. In stark contrast to front-page coverage with screaming headlines around the world, my article would be buried deep inside the next day’s newspaper.”

Sack disagreed with the decision to downplay the suspicions about Jewell.

But in retrospect, Sack said, “the rabbinical wisdom” of Lelyveld, “in the face of intense competitive pressure, provided one of the greatest journalistic lessons of my career. While The Times has demonstrated over the years that it is not immune to misjudgment … we stood out in the coverage of the Jewell story for our restraint. Mr. Lelyveld’s call saved the paper, and me, from embarrassment and perhaps from the litigation that Mr. Jewell later pursued against several news organizations. There but for the grace of Joe went I.”

The Olympics bomber turned out to have been Eric R. Rudolph. He arrested in 2003 after hiding for years in remote reaches of North Carolina. Rudolph was accused of three other bombings and sentenced in 2005 to four life terms plus an additional 120 years in prison.

Rudolph is jailed at the SuperMax federal prison in Colorado. His infamous fellow inmates include Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Terry Nichols, principal accomplice to Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

WJC

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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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