Many reporters still consider Watergate as the zenith of U.S. journalism, a point of which we’ll be reminded as the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon arrives this week.
But W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University, has been trying to disabuse reporters of that notion, with some success, arguing that the media, including The Washington Post and its reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Nixon.
In his 2010 book, “Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism,” Mr. Campbell maintains that “the media played only a peripheral role.”
In an interview, he describes what he calls “the myth of the heroic journalist,” which leaves out many of the true heroes, including special prosecutors, federal judges, Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court. For example, U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica, who oversaw the 1973 trial of the five burglars who went into the Watergate complex, may be one of the key heroes by obtaining evidence that perjury had been committed during the trial as a result of White House pressure.
Judge Sirica also started the judicial proceedings to force the Nixon administration to turn over audiotapes of conversations from the Oval Office. That case ultimately ended up with a unanimous vote in the U.S. Supreme Court that forced Mr. Nixon to turn over the tapes, which showed he had been intimately involved in the cover-up about the ties of the initial burglary to the White House. Nixon resigned two weeks after that ruling.
“Without the tapes, Nixon walks,” Mr. Campbell says, adding that the courts and Congress, not the media, made that crucial discovery.
As a young journalist, I had the opportunity to cover a bit of Watergate as a Washington reporter for two small newspapers, the Rock Hill Herald in South Carolina and the Oak Ridger in Tennessee. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina played a role as a Republican who eventually helped to convince Nixon he had to resign.
Sen. Howard Baker, Tennessee Republican, became famous in 1973 as a member of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, better known as the Senate Watergate Committee. “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Baker repeatedly asked of those who testified before the committee.
Admittedly, I was a Watergate junkie. While an estimated 85 percent of U.S. households viewed some of the proceedings, I watched nearly all the Senate-panel hearings, which lasted more than 300 hours, and even more hours from the House Judiciary Committee, which considered the impeachment of Nixon.
The media have provided an array of memorabilia about that time — from a variety of remembrances and a book by former White House counsel John Dean to an HBO documentary and C-SPAN’s rebroadcast of various congressional hearings at the time.
In many instances, the media montage tends to support Mr. Campbell’s thesis of the limited role of journalism in the investigation. But more often than not, the role of the journalists tends to get overplayed, he says. Moreover, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Woodward remain the faces of the Watergate because they are among the few key players still alive from that time, Mr. Campbell adds.
What does Mr. Campbell see as a key lesson from Watergate 40 years later? “An important lesson is not to buy into simplistic explanations of complex historical events,” he says. “Otherwise, you have ‘history light.’”
In the case of Watergate, journalism may have made some difference, but the system of governmental checks and balances is what actually worked.
• Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @charper51.