Sunday, June 05, 2005

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I doubt most modern journalists would agree with the newspaperman in John Ford's The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. The modern reporter is on a quest to strip away myth and legend to get at THE TRUTH.

Or at least that is what they tell us. But when it comes to the sacred myths of their profession (Vietnam and Watergate), they go to great lengths to shore up the legend.

I've already noted some of the flaws in the Vietnam myths: how professional ambition tempts reporters to become unduly pessimistic, how the historical record often undercuts the idea that the ignorant brass squelched honest truth-tellers in the ranks but brave reporters got the word out, how the press misread the Tet Offensive.

The key thing is that despite these facts, the legend remains. Old bulls like Halberstam and Rather still pat themselves on the back for the great job they did in Vietnam.

The same thing is now happening with Watergate and Deep Throat.

We are now told that Deep Throat's motives either do not matter or were purely noble. An ambitious bureaucrat with scores to settle has replaced the heroic source played by Hal Holbrook in the movie. Does not matter. Does not change the storyline. The only people who care, say Bernstein and Bradlee, are die-hard Nixon propagandists like Pat Buchanan and felons like G. Gordon Liddy.

That charge is revisionist/denial tripe of the worst sort. Long before Felt's outing, thoughtful writers worried that the motives and bureaucratic agendas of Woodstein's sources mattered a great deal. There was a black hole in the record and that left us with an incomplete understanding of Watergate.

Edward Jay Epstein wrote this in 1974:

Perhaps the most perplexing mystery in Bernstein and Woodward's book is why they fail to understand the role of the institutions and investigators who were supplying them and other reporters with leaks. This blind spot, endemic to journalists, proceeds from an unwillingness to see the complexity of bureaucratic in-fighting and of politics within the government itself. If the government is considered monolithic, journalists can report its activities, in simply comprehended and coherent terms, as an adversary out of touch with popular sentiments. On the other hand, if governmental activity is viewed as the product of diverse and competing agencies, all with different bases of power and interests, journalism becomes a much more difficult affair.
Liberal historian Max Lerner reviewed The Final Days in 1975 and worried that Woodward and Bernstein paid too little attention to the "self-interest of the sources" and denied the reader enough information to "make his own assessment of them."

In 1982 Ron Rosenbaum wrote:
In defense of the non-dottiness of Deep Throat speculation, let me point out that Watergate and its aftermath was a subterranean war of leaks, of attempts by one faction or another to divert press and prosecutorial attention to rival power centers. Several significant civil wars within the White house and within the bureaucracies and agencies acted themselves out in deep background attacks. Deep Throat might have been a conscience-stricken lone seeking absolution in underground garage confessionals. But he might have been a cynical game-player trying to use the Washington Post for some factional gain. Without knowing his identity, our understanding of Watergate history will be incomplete.

For three decades we have waited for an important piece of the Watergate puzzle. We now have it. Suddenly, Woodward, Bernstein, and their cheering section insist that the identity of Deep Throat is irrelevant, that Deep Throat was not THAT important to the Watergate stories (poor Hal Holbrooke).

At the same time, we are supposed to see Deep Throat as a hero because he helped bring down Nixon and helped the Washington Post save the republic. Of course, the whole threat to the Republic thing relies heavily on the stuff Deep Throat told Woodward. The actual crimes of Watergate (those proven in court) are pretty prosaic. The drama in ATPM-the need for clandestine signals and secret meetings, flowerpots and typed messages-all that rests on Woodward's and Felt's veracity.

That drama also depends on convenient omissions. To set up the heroic struggle between the Nixon White House and two young reporters, the Standard Version leaves out the real battlefield. To make Deep Throat central to Watergate, the journalistic mythmakers ignore what was happening in Judge Sirica's courtroom. Nixon was doomed when James McCord broke his silence to get a lighter sentence. The men around Nixon were brought down the way most criminal conspiracies are: prosecutors pressured the small fry into implicating their bosses. Deep Throat had no role in that. Neither did Woodward and Bernstein.

Some have tried to justify Felt's leaks by pretending that the Nixon-beast was so powerful that he had no place to turn. Bill O'Reily maintains that he would have been "destroyed" had he blown the whistle publicly.

This is laughably wrong. Democrats controlled the Congress. They would have gladly given him a hearing. Powerful figures like Jack Brooks were champing at the bit to impeach Nixon. What they needed was solid evidence. Surely Felt could have given them that.

The sad thing is that the facts never could support the Watergate narrative that Woodward, Bernstein, and Robert Redford cooked up. Here's Epstein from 1974:
In any event, the fact remains that it was not the press, which exposed Watergate; it was agencies of government itself. So long as journalists maintain their blind spot toward the inner conflicts and workings of the institutions of government, they will no doubt continue to speak of Watergate in terms of the David and Goliath myth, with Bernstein and Woodward as David and the government as Goliath.

So it turns out that the MSM is not all that different from John Ford's movie scribbler. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." At least when the legend makes your profession look heroic and serves a political purpose.

UPDATE: See also:

Leaks, Journalsim, and the Right to Know

On leaks, bias and truth

It's only a game

The rotten heart of investigative journalism

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