Watergate mythology invites pushback, ignores journalism’s messy nature

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As Watergate calcifies into myth, it’s inevitable that the Internet would try to break a few bones in return. Writing in Gawker, John Cook grabs his blackjack and starts swinging, listing nine “crimes against journalism” he says Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein committed in their pursuit of the Watergate story. Among them: revealing a confidential source to his boss, lying, and acquiring phone and financial records. “It’s worth noting that Rupert Murdoch’s British newspaper holdings are currently burning to the ground over behavior that is barely distinguishable” from Woodward and Bernstein’s, Cook writes.

Cook’s article takes a fascinating turn into what he sees as their biggest failure: allowing their legacy to become ever more gold-plated as time passes.

But those various sins would likely render any major contemporary journalistic enterprise illegitimate if exposed in the hothouse environment that is Watergate’s legacy, largely because they diverge from the attitude of public rectitude that Woodward (not so much Bernstein) continues to represent. It’s the one thing Nixon and the right got out of Watergate: They were able to milk the increasingly professionalized and self-regarding press corps for commitments to propriety and ethical forthrightness, ratcheting up the baseline for what “acceptable” journalism is and in the process robbing a new generation of reporters of the tools and reckless swagger to pull off a repeat performance.

Woodward and Bernstein were allowed to be wrong, Cook says, something almost unimaginable for reporters on such a high wire today. “Thanks to the press mavens for whom error is a moral failure, the stink of a mistake is harder to wash off. The audience is less forgiving and more suspicious; one screw-up throws the whole enterprise in doubt.” (Incidentally, I recently watched “All the President’s Men” again and was surprised at how baldly it portrays Woodstein’s and The Washington Post’s cross-fingers-and-jump approach toward some of their stories.)

Will Bunch says the pair’s biggest problem is “Nixon Exceptionalism” — the idea, evinced in a recent Post piece by the reporters, that “Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.”

Bunch, who writes of his teenage obsession with Watergate, says that gives Tricky Dick too much credit:

The truth that few wanted to confront was Nixon wasn’t really unique at all — just a peculiarly rotten and inept defender of a system, the national security state, that actually didn’t work at all, that was corrupt to its very core. After a brief period of national self-examination and a few watered-down post-Watergate reforms, the sins that Woodward and Bernstein attribute uniquely to Nixon, including the squelching of dissent and the discrediting of journalism, resumed with an intensity just as great as the early 1970s.

The essential question of Watergate, Bunch writes, is “What did the president know and when did he know it?”; the question that’s been lost, he says, is “Is what the president doing moral?”

W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University whose site Media Myth Alert has been holding a Watergate anniversary of its own, distills his concerns into a piece called “Five media myths of Watergate.” The Post, he says, didn’t bring down Nixon; the existence of the president’s secret tapes, which showed him approving the cover-up, did. And those were revealed to a Senate committee. (I suppose you could argue that the committee wouldn’t have existed without the Post beating the drum on the story, but it’s hard to report on hypotheticals.)

A particularly interesting myth Campbell tries to dispel: Studies in 1988 and 1995, he writes, showed that journalism schools’ enrollment didn’t swell because of the scandal. I’m not yielding, however, to a myth he tries to perpetuate: that “All the President’s Men” had “sometimes-leaden pacing” — William Goldman never wrote a bad screenplay! (Thanks to Campbell for pointing out yet another Watergate myth: Goldman’s screenplay, Robert Redford has said, was mostly gutted.)

Speaking of the film, Max Holland wrote last week about the papers of its director, Alan Pakula, which were recently ensconced at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

They shine a different light on Watergate, Holland says, revealing places where the reporters’ notes diverge from quotations in the book “All the President’s Men,” and dispelling the claim (repeated in the film) that the FBI interviewed employees of the Committee for the Re-election of the President at work, not at home like Woodstein did.

Every perception here about how the FBI went about its job is untrue. Months before the Post duo contacted CRP employees like Judith Hoback, the bureau had already interviewed them privately and repeatedly, away from CRP lawyers. … From the moment bureau agents and federal prosecutors realized that CRP attorneys would insist on being present, they resolved to advance the investigation within the confines of the grand jury, where no defense lawyers were permitted.

Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Post’s stories—although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. The FBI’s documents on Watergate, released as early as 1992, bear this out. The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.

Related: Ben Bradlee expresses doubts about Deep Throat details in Watergate coverageHimmelman on Bradlee: ‘Everybody knew that I was always wearing my hat as Ben’s biographer’

Correction: This post originally said the White House tapes showed Nixon approving the Watergate break-in.

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