Did the Press Uncover Watergate?
Since last week’s revelation that former FBI Deputy Mark Felt was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame, there has been a lot of discussion about the role that Felt and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had in uncovering the scandal. On this morning’s “Fox News Sunday,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol pointed to a relatively contemporary piece that argued that the role of Felt and Company was much more minor than All the President’s Men would have had us believe.
Edward Jay Epstein, “ Did the Press Uncover Watergate?” (Commentary, July 1974)
A sustaining myth of journalism holds that every great government scandal is revealed through the work of enterprising reporters who by one means or another pierce the official veil of secrecy. The role that government institutions themselves play in exposing official misconduct and corruption therefore tends to be seriously neglected, if not wholly ignored, in the press. This view of journalistic revelation is propagated by the press even in cases where journalists have had palpably little to do with the discovery of corruption. Pulitzer Prizes were thus awarded this year to the Wall Street Journal for Ã¢€œrevealingÃ¢€ the scandal which forced Vice President Agnew to resign and to the Washington Star/News for Ã¢€œrevealingÃ¢€ the campaign contribution that led to the indictments of former cabinet officers Maurice Stans and John N. Mitchell (who were subsequently acquitted), although reporters at neither newspaper in actual fact had anything to do with uncovering the scandals. In the former case, the U.S. Attorney in Maryland had through dogged plea bargaining and grants of immunity induced witnesses to implicate the Vice President; and in the latter case, the Securities and Exchange Commission and a grand jury had conducted the investigation that unearthed the illegal contribution which led to the indictment of the cabinet officers. In both instances, even without Ã¢€œleaksÃ¢€ to the newspapers, the scandals uncovered by government institutions would have come to the publicÃ¢€™s attention when the cases came to trial. Yet to perpetuate the myth that the members of the press were the prime movers in such great events as the conviction of a Vice President and the indictment of two former cabinet officers, the Pulitzer Prize committee simply chose the news stories nearest to these events and awarded them its honors.
It’s an interesting argument. Epstein is ultimately correct that the work of prosecutors and other officials tends to be more important than that of reporters in investigating major government scandals. Still, it has long been an article of faith among Republicans that Nixon would not have been brought down had the Post and other mainstream media players not hammered away relentlessly well after interest in the story had died down. It’s rather odd that many are now acting as if Woodward and Bernstein’s role was minimal.