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 “revealing†the scandal which forced Vice President Agnew to resign and to the Washington Star/News for “revealing†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 “leaks†to the newspapers, the scandals uncovered by government institutions would have come to the public’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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Warren says:

    Actually, I believe the guys at PowerLine were the first to point out this article in Commentary magazine. This prompted Commentary magazine to look through their archives and post the full article on their web site.

    Subsequently, the Wall Street Journal posted a review by Epstein of Blind Spot

  2. Jason says:

    Speaking of Nixon, i’m glad to see his “Great silent majority” is dying off, along with the conservative movement and the republican party it self. What do I mean by that, well lets look Nixon won re-election in 1972 by 23 points, Reagan won re-election in 1984 by 18 points, bush only won re-election by 3 points. MoveOn.org has 3.5 million members the christian coaliltion only has 1.2 million members. Democrats have taken over the entire Northeast and will own it completly after 2006 and they have made serious inroads into the rocky mountain west (Colorado and Montana) appealing to the libertarians in that region. Howard Dean is learning from Newt gingrich, tom delay and karl rove. And luckly for us Dems where even geting help from the moderate republicans who plan to fight the conservatives (Thanks Christine todd whitman)

  3. Laugher says:

    To Jason:

    ha ha ha ha ha…. wait let me catch my breath… ha ha ha hah… I needed a good laugh this evening. By the way, what color is the sky in your world?

  4. Jason says:

    What’s so funny, I did not make anything up. What did I lie about. Do you really not think a progressive revolution is happening. 59 MILLION people voted for John Kerry the most Liberal Democratic nominee since Dukakis in 1988. Also the republican party will have it’s own civil war within itself between the moderates and the conservatives. The radical right-wing christian fundamentalist are scaring people out of the republican party (terri schiavo). and they are a minority there were only 20 million who claimed “morals” as their top concern when voting.

  5. herb says:

    Jason must be living in another world. Dream on Jason. As far as the watergate thing goes, no doubt that both woodword and Bernstein were motivated by Money. These two left wingers didn,t give a damn about the damage they did to our country as long as they got their grundgy hands on the bucks.
    And Jason, I guess you condone murder and violation of the law as long as it’s one of your lefty buddies. The Terri Schiavo Murder was what the Denocrats wanted and Kerry, Dean, Gore, Kennedy and the rest of those loonies will soon be on the outside looking in and pay for their wrongdoings at the balot box.

  6. Jason, I’m always astonished at the ignorance people have about Nixon. Nixon wasn’t a conservative. He was a fairly centrist Republican of the era. He favored affirmative action, government intervention in economic affairs, and moderately generous social welfare spending.

  7. DaveD says:

    I’m being kind of lazy here. Which particular character in the Watergate saga spilled the beans about the tapes? It is my impression that without those, life in the White House would have been uncomfortable but that impeachment would probably have never been a looming reality. I believe that Felt did not offer that evidence. But I forget who did.