Did the Washington Post Really Bring Down Nixon?
Originally published in Examiner.com on Dember 22nd, 2008 5:43 pm ET
The death last week of W. Mark Felt (a.k.a. Deep Throat) re-opens an interesting debate over whether the press, and specifically the Washington Post, deserve credit for uncovering the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Ever since the release of the book and movie All the President’s Men in the mid-1970s, the conventional wisdom among most historians is that Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played the instrumental role in Nixon’s demise.
Through dogged reporting and front-page exposes, the dominant historical narrative suggests, Woodward and Bernstein helped create a political climate that turned public opinion against the president and pushed Congress to investigate the administration’s wrongdoings and eventually pursue articles of impeachment.
This view is articulated most clearly in media historian Rodger Streitmatter’s book Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History. In it, Streitmatter calls the Post’s reporting a “journalistic triumph” and a “solo performance,” adding that “at no time in American history has the importance of such a free press been more dramatically illustrated than during the bleak chapter that was symbolized by the early morning in 1972 when five men … broke into the Watergate office complex — and the country would never be the same.”
The Woodward-Bernstein mythology was reiterated again in 1976 when Warner Brothers released the movie All the President’s Men by saying it was “the story of the two young reporters who cracked the Watergate conspiracy … [and] solved the greatest detective story in American history.”
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Former CBS anchor Dan Rather concurred and has been quoted as saying: “The record clearly shows that the cover-up would have worked if the press hadn’t done its job.”
But should the press and the Washington Post get so much credit?
Over the years, enough evidence has been documented to suggest that it wasn’t the press that brought Nixon down, but rather government prosecutors and FBI agents who strategically leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein (and other reporters) in order to maintain political support for the investigations that were already underway behind the scenes, regardless of what the press was reporting.
This view, which was reported in a comprehensive article by Mark Feldstein in his 2004 American Journalism Review article titled “Watergate Revisited,” suggests that the Post was simply one of several powerful institutions that were at work on the Watergate burglary. In his piece, for example, Feldstein quotes one Watergate prosecutor saying that “Woodward and Bernstein followed in our wake. The idea that they were this great investigative team was a bunch of baloney.”
Moreover, other historians have pointed out that it wasn’t so much the press that brought down Nixon but rather Alexander Butterfield, who told the Senate committee investigating the scandal that Nixon taped all of conversations in the Oval Office. It was the existence of these recordings that gave Nixon opponents the smoking gun they needed to prove wrongdoing in the White House.
So why does the Washington Post get so much credit?
The main reason, media historian Bonnie Brennen has said, is because of the Woodward-Bernstein book All the President’s Men, which she called the seminal work of the Watergate era. The book, and later the movie by the same name, has become a major influence over how historians tell the story of the burglary and subsequent cover-up.
However, because the book is told from the perspective of the reporters themselves, it naturally has a bias in favor of the “press-uncovers-Watergate” world view. There is nothing wrong or sinister about this. Woodward and Bernstein simply told the only story they could – the story of how they and the Post investigated the Watergate scandal.
But as critical thinkers of history, we all need to recognize this bias and understand that other narratives and historical interpretations of Watergate are just as valid.
That process has already begun. Not only has Woodward himself disputed the notion that the press alone uncovered Watergate, but the Washington Post, in writing about the death of Mark Felt, said that if it had not been for the behind-the-scenes work of Deep Throat guiding Woodward and Bernstein through the Watergate scandal, the stories the Post had published in the 1970s “would not have been possible.”
John F. Kirch is an adjunct professor of journalism at Towson University and the University of Maryland, where he has taught media history for five years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.