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Woodward and Bernstein didn't actually bring down a president

Forty-five years ago this week, five burglars with ties to President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign were arrested inside Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington.

The break-in was the signal crime of a scandal that gripped the country for more than two years and culminated with Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

In the years since then, details about the Watergate scandal — a complex mosaic of espionage, deceit, burglary and conspiracy — have faded from collective memory while a mythical, media-driven narrative has taken hold.

The dominant narrative of Watergate avoids the scandal’s intricacies and maintains, quite simply, that tireless reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the crimes that brought down Nixon.

The narrative pops up fairly often in the news media. In recent months, outlets as diverse as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Salon, Huffington Post, Deadspin, the Free Press of Mankato, Minn., and Britain’s SkyNews, have reiterated some version of the trope that Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein toppled Nixon’s presidency.

SkyNews was notably extravagant, declaring in an essay at its web site: “The Washington Post is one of the world’s great newspapers. Thanks to its investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it can make the unique claim of having brought down an American president — the corrupt Richard Nixon.”

Interestingly, it’s a claim the Post has carefully shunned. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher during the Watergate period, declared at a program marking the 25th anniversary of the break-in: “Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Mr. Woodward has concurred, if in earthier terms, telling an interviewer in 2004: “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse[expletive].”

So why does this dubious narrative persist, and how did it take hold?

It lives on principally because it offers a simplistic, easily understood explanation about America’s gravest political and constitutional crisis of the 20th century. It embraces the essence of Watergate — that Nixon’s misconduct forced his resignation — while sidestepping the scandal’s hard-to-keep-straight details.

It’s also a parable appealing and reassuring to journalists, especially these days, given the cutbacks and uncertainties in their field.

How the dominant narrative took hold can be traced to three related factors, beginning with the impeccable timing of “All the President’s Men,” Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein’s memoir about their Watergate reporting.

The book was published in June 1974, as the scandal was approaching its height. “All the President’s Men” topped the New York Times best-seller list through the summer and into the fall — keeping Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein in the public’s eye in the weeks leading to Nixon’s resignation and beyond.

A related factor was the cinematic version of the book, which was released in April 1976 to admiring reviews and strong box office receipts. More so than the book, the film placed Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein — who were played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman — at the decisive center of unraveling the scandal.

These days, the movie is the way many students learn about Watergate.

The book and movie introduced to American pop culture the high-level anonymous source, “Deep Throat.” He and Mr. Woodward met on occasion, sometimes in a parking garage in suburban Virginia.

Deep Throat lent mystery and intrigue to the dominant narrative, and guessing his identity became a years-long parlor game. In 2005, more than 30 years after publication of “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat disclosed his identity: He was W. Mark Felt, formerly second in command at the FBI.

The book, movie and guessing game about “Deep Throat” combined to solidify the dominant narrative and embed it in the popular consciousness.

But if not Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein, who brought down Nixon?

Many people, most of whom were subpoena-wielding.

Rolling up a scandal of Watergate’s magnitude required the collective, if not always coordinated, efforts of federal prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, grand juries, bipartisan panels of both houses of Congress and ultimately the Supreme Court.

Even then, Nixon probably would have served out his presidency if not for the audiotapes he secretly made of conversations at the Oval Office. Nixon strenuously resisted surrendering the tapes to prosecutors but was compelled to do so by the Supreme Court.

The tapes were made public in early August 1974, and showed Nixon had obstructed justice by plotting to divert the FBI’s investigation into the break-in of June 17, 1972.

Facing certain impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at American University’s School of Communication. He has written six books, including “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism” (University of California Press). Campbell also is author of the blog Media Myth Alert.

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