The Myth of Woodward, Bernstein & Watergate

The 50th anniversary this month of the Watergate break-in led W. Joseph Campbell to examine the persistence of a simplistic version of events that even Watergate-era principals at The Washington Post tried to refute.    

U.S. President Richard Nixon at a White House lectern reading a farewell speech to his staff following his resignation on Aug. 9, 1974. (George Tames/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

By W. Joseph Campbell 
American University School of Communication

In their dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.

That version of Watergate has long dominated popular understanding of the scandal, which unfolded over 26 months beginning in June 1972.

It is, however, a simplistic trope that not even Watergate-era principals at the Post embraced.

For example, the newspaper’s publisher during Watergate, Katharine Graham, pointedly rejected that interpretation during a program 25 years ago at the now-defunct Newseum in suburban Virginia.

“Sometimes, people accuse us of ‘bringing down a president,’ which of course we didn’t do, and shouldn’t have done,”Graham said. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Graham’s words, however accurate and incisive, scarcely altered the dominant popular interpretation of Watergate. If anything, the intervening 25 years have solidified the “heroic-journalist” myth of Watergate, which I address and dismantle in my book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.

Two men, one in a topcoat and one in a raincoat, walk away from a building. One is carrying a file folder.

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward, left, and Carl Bernstein on March 1, 1974, Washington, D.C. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

Impact Exaggerated

However popular, the heroic-journalist myth is a vast exaggeration of the effect of their work.

Woodward and Bernstein did disclose financial links between Nixon’s reelection campaign and the burglars arrested June 17, 1972, at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, in what was the signal crime of Watergate.

They publicly tied prominent Washington figures, such as Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, to the scandal.

They won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post.

But they missed decisive elements of Watergate, notably the payment of hush money to the burglars and the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes.

Nonetheless, the heroic-journalist myth became so entrenched that it could withstand disclaimers by Watergate-era principals at the Post such as Graham. Even Woodward has disavowed the heroic-journalist interpretation, once telling an interviewer 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.”

So why not take Woodward at his word? Why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate persisted through the 50 years since burglars linked to Nixon’s campaign were arrested at the Watergate complex in Washington?

The movie All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling.

Glosses Over Intricacies

Like most media myths, the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate rests on a foundation of simplicity. It glosses over the scandal’s intricacies and discounts the far more crucial investigative work of special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

It was, after all, the court’s unanimous ruling in July 1974, ordering Nixon to surrender tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor, that sealed the president’s fate. The recordings captured Nixon, six days after the burglary, agreeing to a plan to deter the FBI from pursuing its Watergate investigation.

The tapes were crucial to determining that Nixon had obstructed justice. Without them, he likely would have served out his presidential term. That, at least, was the interpretation of the late Stanley Kutler, one of Watergate’s leading historians, who noted: “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

The heroic-journalist myth, which began taking hold even before Nixon resigned, has been sustained by three related influences.

One was Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, the well-timed memoir about their reporting. All the President’s Men was published in June 1974 and quickly reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list, remaining there 15 weeks, through Nixon’s resignation and beyond. The book inescapably promoted the impression Woodward and Bernstein were vital to Watergate’s outcome.

More so than the book, the cinematic adaptation of All the President’s Men placed Woodward and Bernstein at the decisive center of Watergate’s unraveling. The movie, which was released in April 1976 and starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, was relentlessly media-centric, ignoring the work of prosecutors and the FBI.

The book and movie introduced Woodward’s super-secret source, “Deep Throat.” For 31 years after Nixon’s resignation, Washington periodically engaged publicly in guessing games about the source’s identity. Such speculation sometimes pointed to W. Mark Felt, a former senior FBI official.

Felt brazenly denied having been Woodward’s source. Had he been “Deep Throat,” he once told a Connecticut newspaper, “I would have done better. I would have been more effective.”

The “who-was-Deep-Throat” conjecture kept Woodward, Bernstein and the heroic-journalist myth at the center of Watergate conversations. Felt was 91 when, in 2005, he acknowledged through his family’s lawyer that he had been Woodward’s source after all.

It’s small wonder that the heroic-journalist myth still defines popular understanding of Watergate. Other than Woodward and Bernstein, no personalities prominent in Watergate were the subjects of a bestselling memoir, the inspiration for a star-studded motion picture and the protectors of a mythical source who eluded conclusive identification for decades.The Conversation

[Ed: There are some who think the C.I.A. was behind Nixon’s downfall, and there was this take on why Nixon asked the C.I.A. about the Kennedy assassination.]

W. Joseph Campbell is professor of communication studies at American University School of Communication.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

10 comments for “The Myth of Woodward, Bernstein & Watergate

  1. Stephen Boni
    June 28, 2022 at 14:28

    It seems strange to me that a piece trying to widen the scope of how we view Watergate makes no mention of Jim Hougan’s book ‘Secret Agenda’ or subsequent research of CIA plants within the White House who may have guided Nixon toward his illegal activities and then ensured his operatives were caught. All of this gets only a little sentence at the end of the piece. And no mention of Nixon’s larger crime, now proven, of derailing Vietnam peace talks as a way of bettering his election chances in 1968, thus prolonging the war for another 5 years+.

  2. zhenry
    June 27, 2022 at 23:57

    Thats one view of Felt, Woodward wrote his views on Felt’s motivation many years after Watergate.

  3. Christian J. Chuba
    June 27, 2022 at 21:11

    IMO any journalist who does their own research, rather than just echo what their govt handers (oops, I meant sources) say, deserves an award.

  4. Gary L. Aguilar, MD
    June 27, 2022 at 15:26

    Former Washington Post reporter, Jefferson Morley’s, new book, “Scorpions’ Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate,” lays out the deep context of Watergate that other journalists have heretofore missed.

    Publishers Weekly’s brief review says:

    “In this eye-opening investigation, journalist Morley (The Ghost) scrutinizes the CIA’s involvement in the Watergate scandal. Drawing on taped conversations between Richard Nixon and CIA director Richard Helms, Morley claims that “the Watergate affair originated in the clandestine collaborative relationship” between the two men. He points out that five of the seven burglars had CIA connections and notes that an agency informant helped burglar James McCord destroy documents after the break-in. The book’s most intriguing sections delve into events that occurred before Watergate, as Morley details how Helms worked with Nixon to escalate the Vietnam War and prevent Chilean president Salvador Allende from taking office after his 1970 election. Morley also documents Helms’s involvement in the downplaying of the CIA’s “pre-assassination knowledge” of Lee Harvey Oswald, the killing of Chilean general René Schneider, and the surveillance of U.S. citizens involved in the antiwar movement, and notes that Helms’s success in publicly distancing the CIA from the Watergate scandal enabled it to avoid scrutiny of the burglars’ other activities, including “intrusions at the Chilean Embassy and the offices of Chilean officials.” Packed with lucid analyses of complex geopolitical events, this is a vital reconsideration of recent American history.”

  5. Realist
    June 27, 2022 at 02:48

    The attempts at bringing sitting US presidents to justice for alleged crimes has been pretty scattershot with little equitable success. My father’s “Greatest Generation” for the most part thought that Nixon’s sins were trivial and his fate determined mostly by partisan politics. My Vietnam Era generation were just glad to see him nailed for anything expedient just to remove him from office and punish him for escalating a war he had promised to end with a “secret plan” during the campaign.

    Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were both as guilty as sin of the crimes charged under the Iran-Contra investigation, which were more heinous than anything Nixon had done. Either of them could have been impeached and removed from office on the merits of the evidence, but Reagan had, after all, ended the cold war with the Soviet Union plus he was recognisably a tired old man professing some of the same symptoms of senility that Joe Biden does right now. So, he was cut a break by both sides of the aisle and allowed to retain his office and dignity. Bush, I think, came closer to impeachment. Though he professed “being out of the loop,” as former head of the CIA it seems that he had earlier helped craft all such loops. Top aids in his administration were poised to testify against him in congressional hearings when he, as president, suddenly pardoned them all near the end of his term obviating the planned hearings. No doubt he got away with much more than Reagan ever knew, including the infamous October surprise.

    Clinton was a walking-talking scandal a day, most of it involving his personal sexual pecadillos, some involving personal finances with Hilary playing key roles. It was as his defenders insisted, largely a case of the opposition “stalking” the president. He was no angel and certainly committed perjury an indeterminate number of times. Once the opposition congress got that special prosecutor named to look at his personal finances (Whitewater), it opened the door to hunting season. There was certainly lots of sleaze, but nothing that was enough to convict and remove him from office, unless you wanted to make Gore the president with the advantage of incumbency in the next election because Slick Willie perjured himself over Monica. The actions that could have disqualified him, such as creating “wars for Monica” (to take the heat off the sleazefest) and waging war against the Serbs in Bosnia and later Kosovo and blowing up aspirin factories in Sudan and bin Laden’s HQ in Afghanistan whilst Al Qaeda was still a gleam in the sheik’s eyes, were not pursued as issues of investigation by the congress, not to my recollection. I don’t think the GOPers were hurt as much on their overreach than they might have been for this impeachment fiasco. The proof? Dubya’s actually getting close enough on votes (though he actually lost when the newspapers recounted all the votes in Florida) to be handed the presidency by the Scotus in the 2000 election.

    In what might as well be called the Cheney administration, Dick and his acolyte Dubya, playing the role of the “decider” undoubtedly committed the greatest number and the worst sort of crimes by any president ever to hold office up to that time. That administration lied about everything and deliberately set about starting major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (with solid plans for five others soon to come) based entirely upon these lies and incessant fearmongering. Again, wars were started without declaration by the congress or the approval of the United Nations. There was considerable grumbling about all these unconstitutional or extraconstitutional actions by the media, especially the independent media which was starting to come into its own, but absolutely no opposition to any of it was displayed in congress, which gave Dubya and his gang a blank check to commit war crimes at their pleasure. The Bush/Cheney (or Cheney/Bush) administration was the most vile, evil and truly criminal of an administration thus discussed here…and they walked away entirely unimpeded.

    Obama was a typical bait and switch con artist when it came to the promises he made during the campaigns and the policies he not just accepted but imposed upon congress, not the least of which was the adoption of Romney Care which was re-christened Obama Care and was mostly a boon to the insurance industry. But, once again, his very worst sins were committed in foreign policy wherein he greatly expanded the number of conventional or hybrid wars with numerous enemies, mostly in the Middle East (Libya, Syria, Yemen) but also in Africa (Sudan, Somalia) and even in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras). Hilary, his SOS, was largely in charge of his armed conflicts. Both he and she outdid themselves when, after investing $5 billion in payoffs to local grifters, orchestrated a successful coup against the elected government in Ukraine, which they and their successors have successfully used as a focus of provocations against the Russian state until that effort blossomed forth into a full blown proxy war they always intended against Russia. Every aspect of the war against Russia is being financed, armed and directed by Washington, except the cannon fodder on the ground are Ukrainians.

    Obama set the stage for the next two presidents, one (Trump) who professed to want peace with Russia but always found himself pressured by American politics into escalating the bellicose plans of the Obama administration for more disputes, sanctions and overt combat against Russia (both in Ukraine and Syria). Trump was, in fact, endlessly accused of being a Russian Manchurian Candidate and was impeached, without conviction, twice! In my opinion, Obama got away with (literally) murder, if you count all the dead in Ukraine, and Trump got railroaded by his more astute American political opponents who now always act without the least particle of integrity, honor or honesty in a scorched-earth, destroy your opponent by whatever means it takes.

    The next and current president (Joe Biden), though a work in progress, seems to me (still a registered Democrat) to be the most corrupt and belligerent since the Bush and Cheney duo. Obama had placed him in charge of all the grift that America and its politicians could squeeze out of Ukraine and its shameless oligarchs, blatantly Nazi politicians and private ultra-right militia. Space here precludes even beginning to list all the war crimes I suspect that America will ultimately be charged with when this war of American inception and direction finally comes to a conclusion. But, like Reagan, Biden may sadly escape the culpability he surely deserves because of his totally conspicuous senility and dementia. He is totally incoherent most of the time. Who deserves to pay the price that justice demands for this, besides Joe? And what is an appropriate sentence for a fool who even fails to recognise his own wife and relatives more than just once? I’m sure we won’t see justice here either.

  6. Tony
    June 26, 2022 at 12:39

    A rare picture of Nixon wearing his glasses!

    I strongly recommend that anybody who reads this article also reads the links that have been provided.

    Also worth reading is a 2020 internet article “Removing a U.S. President Without an Election”
    by Paul Ryder.

    On the Nixon presidency he writes:

    “If you made a chart of the newly discovered CIA and Pentagon links to Watergate, it would fill a large wall. To put it another way, if you remove the CIA and the Pentagon from the story, Nixon would have completed his second term and retired with dignity.”

  7. Steal This Mansion
    June 26, 2022 at 11:50

    Something very revealing about the American corporate media occurred a few months ago, and it passed without apparent notice.

    Joe Biden had just come home from a trip to visit Steve Bannon’s friends in Warsaw. Publicly, the trip had been a disaster, with Biden making multiple ‘mis-statements’ that had to be ‘corrected’ by the staff. IIRC, these included telling American soldiers that they would ‘soon’ be getting the chance to fight the Ruskies themselves.

    When Biden returned home, at his next appearance before ‘the press’, he had a piece of paper in his hand. Modern hi-res photography revealed that on it were written the questions and answers for the press conference. Much attention was paid to the fact that the 80 year old man required a ‘cheat sheet’ for the answers.

    But what passed un-noticed was that Biden knows in advance what questions will be asked by the press. This means that questions have to be pre-submitted, then approved by the staff, which prepares an ‘answer’. The American corporate press concentrated on the fact that Biden appears unable to memorize some simple answers and go out and then regurgitate them the way Obama did. And apparently that even the ‘cheat sheet’ didn’t help Biden avoid more ‘mis-statements’.

    With my gray hair, what I can see is that there has been a big change, because not that very long ago, the notion that the President would know the questions in advance would be the scandal, and that the media of the day would have screamed blue murder at the very notion of pre-submitting questions for a press conference. I don’t think that in the 1970’s, Jimmy Carter could have gotten away with pre-submitting questions for his press conferences. Maybe I’m wrong, as much of this occurs in the dark, but one did not get the impression that the media of the 1970’s would have allowed it. Back then, the goal of each reporter appeared to be to ask the tough question that created a headline from the press conference.

    America has clearly changed. The last real reporter I remember at a Presidential Press conference was a lady named Helen Thomas who asked impertinent questions of Dubya. Since then, nothing, nada, zip.

    If you think the ‘press’ is an important factor in a democracy in keeping the government straight and honest, then you need to realize that the sort of ‘press’ that formed that sentiment no longer exists in America. The sort of ‘press’ that would keep a government honest would never pre-submit questions, and would ask much tougher questions than today’s stenographers.

    • Dienne
      June 27, 2022 at 12:15

      Very good points. Today’s “journalists” (sic) are more interested in access than reporting. In fact, actual reporting usually results in the loss of access, and most stenographers will do anything to avoid that. The annual White House Correspondents Dinner makes me sick.

  8. Jeff Harrison
    June 26, 2022 at 11:30

    LMAO. W. Mark Felt was a career bureaucrat who was extracting his revenge for being passed over and sidelined. So in reality Tricky Dick was undone not by some crusading journalists or even by the professional investigators of the American secret police. He was undone by an angry bureaucrat hell bent on revenge. And he got it. He pulled the loose thread and the whole sweater came unraveled.

  9. Newton Finn
    June 26, 2022 at 10:57

    I suspect we’ve made heroes of journalists because when no one has the courage to act rightly (with the sacrifices that entails), then talking rightly becomes the default embodiment of virtue. The homage paid by vice in this regard is the popularity of the term “virtue signaling.” Can one any longer even imagine a political leader of the caliber of JFK or RFK, or a social leader of the caliber of MLK or Malcolm?

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