The Myth of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein

Thirty-five years ago this weekend, one of the most famous
myths of journalism was born.

On June 17, 1972, around 2 a.m., five men in business suits, wearing
surgical gloves and carrying sophisticated bugging equipment along with nearly
$2,300 in cash broke into the Democratic national headquarters at the Watergate
hotel. Twenty-six months later on Aug.
9, 1974, President Richard Nixon was forced to resign for his role
in covering up the break-in, and the country began its dance with
post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The
American public had never experienced a president resigning in ignominy. The
scandal was such a devastating trauma to the national psyche that it became
easiest for Americans to grasp Watergate through simple stories, or myths. One
such story involves journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and their trusted
source, Deep Throat.

Woodward
and Bernstein, as most everyone knows, were two young, unknown metro reporters
for The Washington Post in 1972. Woodward had only been at the Post for nine
months when the break-in occurred. The pair worked on the first-day, front-page
main story, along with eight other Post reporters. They did not even get a
byline. But the story clearly ignited their journalistic juices, for it was “Woodstein” that latched onto the mystery of the five burglars and their ties
to Nixon and refused to let go until it was solved.

Over time,
the myth has grown and is oft-repeated, especially by journalists less than 40,
that Woodward and Bernstein with the help of Deep Throat took down a president.

Just this
week, the following appeared on Boston
station WBUR’s Web site: “Carl Bernstein was half
the investigative reporting team of Woodward and Bernstein that brought down a
president in the Watergate scandal.”

But Woodward
and Bernstein did not bring down a president.

The late Katharine
Graham, the highly respected Washington Post publisher during Watergate, knew that. Shortly after Nixon resigned, she hand wrote
a letter thanking the pair from her summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. In the letter, which is in the Woodward-Bernstein
Watergate archives at the University
of Texas, Graham wrote:

“I concede
all the blessings we must all concede — incredible amounts of luck,
sources willing & even finally a few eager to talk & help. I concede
the role of the courts, grand juries & congressional committees. We
didn’t bring him down.”

But then,
it is a much better story to romanticize Woodward, now 64, and Bernstein, 63,
and turn them into David-like characters who took down the nation’s Goliath
with a slingshot fashioned out of a newspaper. That myth was cemented after
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman — the equivalent today of Brad Pitt and
George Clooney — portrayed Woodward and Bernstein in the 1976 classic movie “All
the President’s Men.”

But the
truth is always more complicated, complex and nuanced than movies or
myths.

The reality
is that Woodward and Bernstein should be applauded for doing consistently
strong reporting throughout the fall of 1972 when Nixon ran for re-election. Yes,
the Post led the way. But other media such as the Los Angeles Times, The New
York Times
, The Washington Star, Time, Newsweek and CBS also did good work.

Jack Nelson
and Ron Ostrow of the Los Angeles Times got the first hard-hitting,
on-the-record interview with one of the peripheral burglars. Much of Woodward
and Bernstein’s early reporting was attributed to anonymous sources. The power
of the Los Angeles Times‘ Oct. 5, 1972,
story was that it ran a verbatim, taped account of Alfred C. Baldwin III, a
former FBI agent who was considered a major government witness.

“The Baldwin
story was a big deal,” Nelson said in an interview for “Woodward and Bernstein:
Life in the Shadow of Watergate.”
“It created a hell of a story because you had
an eyewitness talking. It was a big explosion at the time. It was not an ‘informed source or official.’ It put a face on the Watergate story.”

In the
first six months after the break-in, the Post produced 201 staff-written
stories. But other news organizations were also in the mix, which is generally forgotten.
Again, due to the astounding longevity of Redford’s “All
the President’s Men.” Between June 17,
1972, and Dec. 31, 1972, The New York Times ran 99 staff-written stories, and the Los Angeles Times
published 45 staff-written stories, according to Louis Liebovich’s book “Richard
Nixon, Watergate, and the Press.”

The story
really turned a corner on Oct. 27 and 31, 1972, when CBS ran two special
Watergate reports. The first was nearly 15 minutes out of a 22-minute broadcast — the nearly unprecedented equivalent of a newspaper turning two-thirds of its
front page over to one story. The second was chopped down to eight minutes after the
Nixon administration leaned on CBS and complained about running a negative
story so close to the November election. CBS brought the story to a national
audience, many of whom knew little about Watergate because of spotty press
coverage by news organizations outside the Beltway. In October, a Gallup
poll indicated that 48 percent of the country did not recognize the word “Watergate.”

In the
mid-1970s, the former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee told the late author
David Halberstam that CBS anchor Walter Cronkite made the story legitimate when
he reported it. “No longer was it the liberal Washington Post running a story
to somehow get Nixon,” Bradlee said. “If Cronkite said it was news, it’s news.
Cronkite’s story had an effect on provincial editors. And from then on that began to legitimize the
story. It began to get better play.”

What the
press — not just Woodward and Bernstein — did best during Watergate and still
does best today is keep important issues alive by shining an aggressive
spotlight on them. As much as they might love to, reporters and editors don’t
have the power to hold grand juries, take depositions or issue subpoenas or search
warrants.

During
Watergate, the courts, the FBI and the Congress — especially after televising
237 hours of the Senate Watergate hearings — all played key roles in the
president’s ultimate demise. Woodward and Bernstein don’t dispute this; they have
pointed out that events do not happen in a vacuum. Graham agreed.

“But I
believe if the story pre-election & post hadn’t continued (burglar and
former CIA/Nixon security man James W.) McCord might well not have written his
letter,” wrote Graham.

McCord, one
of the five burglars, faced a long jail sentence. Not willing to be the fall
guy, he wrote an explosive letter on March
23, 1973, to Judge John J. Sirica. The letter revealed that there
was much more to the break-in than the judge knew.

“But it was
still an extraordinary, gutsy, hard, brilliant piece of journalism & I want
to say this to you both despite all the accompanying crap that has fallen all
over us & especially you,” wrote Graham. “Lastly, you’ve both made it fun & we’ve all kept the demon pomposity in moderate if far from complete
control.”

No one
should take away any credit from Woodward and Bernstein, whose lives went on to
be defined by their role in Watergate. But the drama that concluded with the early departure of the nation’s 37th president included a few other key characters as well.

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