W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Senate’

Who, or what, brought down Nixon?

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 24, 2011 at 10:26 am

Who brought him down?

The easy, but wrong, answer to the question of who or what brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal is: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post.

As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that interpretation has become “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.

“How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

It’s also a prominent media-driven myth–a well-known but dubious or improbable tale about the news media that masquerades as factual.

What I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate offers a convenient, accessible, easy-to-grasp version of what was a sprawling and intricate scandal.

“But to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “is to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”

Britain’s Spectator magazine takes up the Watergate question in an article about fallout from the phone-hacking scandal that has swept up Rupert Murdoch’s London tabloid, the Sunday News of the World.

To its credit, Spectator sidestepped the heroic-journalist myth in declaring:

“Everyone who remembers the Watergate scandal remembers Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting. Brilliant though it was, the Nixon administration was destroyed not by the Washington Post, but by Sam Ervin’s Senate committee, which had the powers parliamentary select committees ought to have to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to talk or go to jail for contempt.”

While commendable in eschewing the mythical heroic-journalist interpretation, the Spectator commentary overstated the importance of the Senate select committee on Watergate, which was chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina and took testimony during the spring and summer of 1973.

Rather than destroying Nixon’s presidency, the select committee had the effect of training public attention on the crimes of Watergate and, in the testimony it elicited, offered a way to determine whether Nixon had a guilty role in the scandal.

The select committee’s signal contribution to unraveling Watergate came in producing the revelation that Nixon had secretly tape-recorded conversations with top aides in the Oval Office of the White House.

The tapes, I note in Getting It Wrong, “proved crucial to the scandal’s outcome.”

They constituted Nixon’s “deepest secret,” Stanley Kutler, Watergate’s leading historian, has written.

The revelation about their existence set off a year-long effort to force Nixon to turn over the tapes, as they promised to clear or implicate him in the scandal.

Nixon resisted surrendering the tapes until compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in July 1974.

The tapes revealed his guilty role in seeking to block the FBI investigation of the Watergate’s seminal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the offices of the Democratic national committee in Washington.

Nixon resigned in August 1974.

In the final analysis, then, who or what brought down Richard Nixon?

Certainly not Woodward and Bernstein. Not the Senate select committee, either.

The best answer is that rolling up a scandal of the dimension and complexity of Watergate “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,” as I write in Getting It Wrong.

“Even then,” I add, “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,” making inevitable the early end of his presidency.


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NYTimes flubs the correction

In Debunking, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Newspapers on January 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

The New York Times today publishes a correction to last week’s “Week in Review” article about sudden “transformational moments” — and flubs the correction.

McCarthy: He testified

The article discussed among other topics the dramatic exchange at a Senate hearing on June 9, 1954, in which lawyer Joseph N. Welch supposedly deflated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

I raised doubts in a recent post at Media Myth Alert about whether the Welch-McCarthy encounter was as “transformational” as the Times suggested.

The correction in the Times today addresses the context of the encounter and states:

“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”

But McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee–a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations) and he was there to testify.

(McCarthy and a top aide, Roy Cohn, were focal points of what were called the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. At the time, McCarthy was chairman of the Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations. He removed himself from the temporary subcommittee which conducted the Army-McCarthy hearings and which was chaired by Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota. McCarthy, however, was permitted to cross-examine witnesses during the hearings.)

Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s “sense of decency,” the senator was sworn in as a witness.

McCarthy, Cohn at 1954 hearings

According to hearing excerpts published in the Times, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:

“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”

And he proceeded to discuss at length his views about the Communist Party U.S.A. and its leadership. “The orders flow, of course, from Moscow,” McCarthy declared.

In a front-page article published June 10, 1954, the Times focused on the Welch-McCarthy encounter of the day before, stating in its lead paragraph:

“The Army-McCarthy hearings reached a dramatic high point … in an angry, emotion-packed exchange between Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and Joseph N. Welch, special counsel for the Army.”

The four-column headline over the Times article read:


Interestingly, coverage in the Chicago Tribune on June 10, 1954, focused on McCarthy’s having taken the witness stand the day before, announcing in bold headlines stripped across the top of a cluttered front page:


The opening paragraphs in the Tribune read:

“Sen. McCarthy [R., Wis.] warned that a Red world would follow communist penetration of the United States government as he took the witness stand … in his battle with the Pentagon.

“The appearance under oath of McCarthy came on the 30th day of the senate inquiry ….

“McCarthy outlined the nature and size of the communist conspiracy in this nation, describing it as a militant organization of 25,000 trained spies and saboteurs.”

Not until the fifth paragraph did the Tribune mention the Welch-McCarthy encounter.

Quite clearly, then, McCarthy was “at the hearings to testify.” And testify he did, in rather typical fashion.

So why does all this matter? So what if the Times flubbed a correction about its reference to a long-ago moment that probably wasn’t  so “transformational”?

After all, as media critic Jack Shafer of slate.com has pointed out:

“Readers should recognize that in journalism as in life, some number of mistakes are unavoidable. And some of those mistakes, while deplorable, don’t matter all that much.”

But injecting fresh error into a correction goes beyond trivial, and may signal trouble in the newspaper’s internal fact-checking procedures.

There is, of course, inherent value in setting the record straight, as the Times recognized in publishing the correction in the first place.

Setting the record straight supposedly helps promote a newspaper’s credibility, too. As I note in Getting It Wrong, my book debunking prominent media-driven myths, “a central objective of newsgathering” is “that of seeking to get it right.”

I further note in Getting It Wrong that “journalism seldom is seriously introspective, or very mindful of its history. It usually proceeds with little more than a nod to its past.”

Flubbing the correction suggests a broader unfamiliarity at the Times with an important period in American history–and hints, too, at a reluctance to consult its electronic database of back issues.


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