How a reporting mistake nearly derailed the Watergate investigation — and how journalists recovered

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tags: Russia, Watergate, Pentagon Papers, Nixon, Trump



Jon Marshall is the author of "Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse" and an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

The Trump White House’s escalating attacks on the news media after a string of journalism errors this month resemble assaults by Richard Nixon’s administration against The Washington Post when it made a mistake in a story about Watergate.

The president’s recent attacks began when Brian Ross of ABC News incorrectly reported on Dec. 1 that Donald Trump told national security aide Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. Four days later, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other news outlets erred when they said that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had subpoenaed Deutsche Bank for Trump’s financial records.

Then CNN mistakenly reported that Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, knew in advance that WikiLeaks was going to release documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee. And Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel posted an inaccurate tweet on Dec. 9 about a Trump rally in Florida. In response, Trump demanded a retraction from “FAKE NEWS WaPo,” and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused journalists of sometimes “purposely misleading the American people.” Even though Weigel readily apologized, Trump demanded that The Post fire him, which the paper declined to do.

These errors, and Trump’s eager celebration of them, recall a crucial moment when a reporting blunder almost stymied the most important political investigation in American media history — Watergate. After The Post made an embarrassing mistake in an October 1972 story about powerful White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, press secretary Ronald Ziegler spent a half hour angrily denouncing the newspaper on behalf of the Nixon administration.

At the time, the Watergate scandal was drawing closer to Nixon’s inner circle, and the error became an opportunity for Nixon’s team to try to derail The Post’s investigation into widespread misconduct by his administration and reelection campaign.

And it almost worked. But the Post was able to recover by quickly figuring out what went wrong, making sure its reporters were careful to avoid similar mistakes and refusing to be intimidated by White House threats. Today’s journalists would do well to remember these lessons. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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