Media myths and their self-sustaining quality: The case of Watergate

Media myths are not only persistent, but can spawn myths of their own, as W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, shows in this guest post, using the Watergate “heroic-journalist myth” as a case study.
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W. Joseph Campbell at the Newseum. Photo credit: Bruce Guthrie
Debunking media myths at the Newseum. Photo by Bruce Guthrie

Prominent media-driven myths, the subject of my new book, Getting It Wrong, can be a bit self-sustaining: They can and do give rise to subsidiary media myths. The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is a fine example of this tendency. It has spun off a particularly tenacious, though appealing, subsidiary myth.

The heroic-journalist myth has it that the intrepid investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

As I write in Getting It Wrong: “The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate—ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity. How the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.” Except that it’s exaggerated.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation” of Watergate, I write in Getting It Wrong, “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.” Those forces were typically subpoena-wielding and including federal prosecutors, the FBI, bipartisan Congressional committees, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the end, the contributions of the Washington Post to the scandal’s outcome were modest, and certainly not decisive. Over the years, principals at the Post have emphasized as much. For example, Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, insisted the Post did not topple Nixon.

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do,” Graham said in 1997, at a program in Washington marking the scandal’s twenty-fifth anniversary. “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional,” she said.

In earthier terms, Woodward has concurred, telling American Journalism Review in 2004: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.” Nonetheless, the heroic-journalist myth lives on. It’s a robust myth, little-restrained in its reach and infiltration, and highly resistant to debunking. It is retold in textbooks, in classrooms, in newsrooms.

And it has spun off a durable subsidiary myth, one that revolves around the hoopla associated with Woodward and Bernstein: Their book about their reporting, All the President’s Men, was a best-seller. Its cinematic version was a box office success and is, quite likely, the most-viewed film ever about Watergate.

The book and the movie made journalism seem sexy, and caused enrollments at college and university journalism programs to soar. Supposedly. As I write in Getting It Wrong, “there is no evidence to support the notion that enrollments in journalism programs surged because of Woodward, Bernstein … and All the President’s Men. The subsidiary myth lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

A study financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 reported that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Seven years earlier, Maxwell E. McCombs reported in the Gannett Center Journal “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate scandal broke in 1972. McCombs, a veteran mass communication scholar, further wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972….”

Despite such solid scholarly research, the subsidiary myth lives on. It’s a neat and tidy tale, the notion that the exploits of Woodward and Bernstein were a profound stimulus to enrollments in collegiate journalism programs. Like many other media myths, it’s a tale almost too good to be disbelieved.

W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong, is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written four other books. Getting It Wrong was launched last Saturday in a program at the Newseum, the museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.