Watergate Myth: The Media Brought Down Nixon

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark Feldstein, in the American Journalism Review (Aug./Sept. 2004):

... Even conservative critics have accepted the notion that Woodward and Bernstein were instrumental in Nixon's downfall."[T]he Washington Post.. decided to make the Watergate break-in a major moral issue, a lead followed by the rest of the East Coast media," Paul Johnson wrote in his book"Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the Year 2000." This"Watergate witch-hunt," Johnson declared, was"run by liberals in the media..the first media Putsch in history."

Woodward dismisses both detractors and fans who contend that the media unseated a president."To say that the press brought down Nixon, that's horseshit," he says."The press always plays a role, whether by being passive or by being aggressive, but it's a mistake to overemphasize" the media's coverage.

But it was Woodward and Bernstein's best-selling book,"All the President's Men," that focused public attention on the young reporters, especially after Hollywood turned it into a blockbuster movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The film immortalized the chain-smoking anonymous source called"Deep Throat," who met Woodward at night in deserted parking garages after first signaling for meetings with elaborate codes. Warner Brothers promoted the movie as"the story of the two young reporters who cracked the Watergate conspiracy...[and] solved the greatest detective story in American history. At times, it looked as if it might cost them their jobs, their reputations, perhaps even their lives."

Despite the hype, Woodward and Bernstein did not write a comprehensive history of Watergate, just a memoir of their own experience covering it."The fallacy in 'All the President's Men' is that..the movie is all from our point of view, so that it seems to be a story about us," Woodward acknowledges."But that's just one piece of what happened early in the process."

Still, as sociologist Michael Schudson wrote in his book"Watergate in American Memory," that's not the way the public sees it:"A mythology of the press in Watergate developed into a significant national myth, a story that independently carries on a memory of Watergate even as details about what Nixon did or did not do fade away. At its broadest, the myth of journalism in Watergate asserts that two young Washington Post reporters brought down the president of the United States. This is a myth of David and Goliath, of powerless individuals overturning an institution of overwhelming might. It is high noon in Washington, with two white-hatted young reporters at one end of the street and the black-hatted president at the other, protected by his minions. And the good guys win. The press, truth its only weapon, saves the day." ...

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