The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism

Adam Nagourney writes in this 2023 book:

* September 20, 1972… [New York Times Executive Editor A.M.] Rosenthal sent a note to David R. Jones, the new national editor. “We seem to be taking a beating on the Watergate case from the Washington Post. Let’s talk it over.”

* That Monday morning, a story in The Washington Post by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported that one of those arrested, James W. McCord, Jr., was on the payroll of Nixon’s reelection committee. That was the beginning of a run of stories by Woodward and Bernstein — two reporters on the metropolitan staff — that would humble the Times, on what would prove to be the biggest scandal in Washington in fifty years.

* Watergate would eclipse that. The Times would come close to catching up with the Post, throwing some of its best investigative reporters, among them Seymour Hersh, into the hunt. But Watergate would change American journalism. It would always be known as the Post ’s story, and Rosenthal saw Watergate as the biggest failure of his years running the newsroom. At the time, Rosenthal wanted an early accounting of the front page of the Post every night; clerks from the Washington bureau would wait outside the Post headquarters to retrieve first – edition copies and rush them back to the Times bureau. He ordered the Times to match, in its final editions, any big Watergate revelation the Post had that the Times had missed. It then fell to Rosenthal to write a letter to Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Post, with copies to Woodward, Bernstein, and Katharine Graham, the publisher, congratulating his biggest rival for being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its Watergate coverage. “ No jokes this time…Huge applause from Forty – third Street,” he told Bradlee, a reference to their jousting, competitive relationship.
It could not have been easy. As Rosenthal once put it, “He is out to cut my throat and I am out to cut his.” And he held one person responsible for the Times ’s failure on Watergate: Max Frankel, the head of the Washington bureau. I should have fired you, Rosenthal told him.
Watergate happened on Frankel’s watch, though he always resisted much of the blame (and, as would become clear in the coming years, the episode would not harm his career).

* But the Watergate failures spoke to a broader issue: the rules of Washington journalism were changing. The Times was trying to retain its magisterial distance and establishment authority as competing newspapers — led by the Post — turned sharply more adversarial toward the government. Watergate, coming after the disclosures in the Pentagon Papers, had undermined the assumptions that had governed the everyday working relations between journalists and the people they wrote about. Public officials lied. They covered up. They broke the law. At first, Frankel could not imagine Nixon engaging in anything like this. “ Not even my most cynical view of Nixon had allowed for his stupid behavior,” Frankel wrote years later. “There he sat at the peak of his power, why would he personally get involved in tapping the phone not even of his opponent but of only a Democratic party functionary?”
The Times could no longer assume that an event was not news until it had written about it on its front page. There was a demand for aggressive investigative reporting that stepped ahead of the FBI or the police — the kind of reporting that was being done by Woodward and Bernstein. And the standards for what kind of information was needed to back up an explosive story were changing. Rosenthal would call, riled up by the latest dispatch from Woodward and Bernstein. Frankel would assure him he shared his frustration, but he did not know what to do. So many of its rival’s stories gave no hint of sources.
We got beaten on stories that I couldn’t have gotten into The New York Times, he would say to a colleague years later.
The Times had long kept a dignified distance from investigative reporting. Sulzberger wanted Rosenthal to eliminate the phrase “investigative reporter” because it created two classes of reporters. “The government has investigators and The Times reporters,” the publisher said. It was a cautious stance that would cloud the paper’s efforts to recruit investigative reporters and constrain its reporting for another twenty years. Gene Roberts, who was the paper’s national editor, would complain that the Times lacked an investigative mentality. He eventually left to run The Philadelphia Inquirer, which under Roberts would win seventeen Pulitzers over eighteen years.

Where does Adam Nagourney get the idea that Woodward and Bernstein were ahead of the FBI or the police? In the July 1974 issue of Commentary magazine, Edward Jay Epstein wrote:

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.

The natural tendency of journalists to magnify the role of the press in great scandals is perhaps best illustrated by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s autobiographical account of how they “revealed” the Watergate scandals.1 The dust jacket and national advertisements, very much in the bravado spirit of the book itself, declare: “All America knows about Watergate. Here, for the first time, is the story of how we know. . . . In what must be the most devastating political detective story of the century, the two young Washington Post reporters whose brilliant investigative journalism smashed the Watergate scandal wide open tell the whole behind-the-scenes drama the way it happened.” In keeping with the mythic view of journalism, however, the book never describes the “behind-the-scenes” investigations which actually “smashed the Watergate scandal wide open”—namely the investigations conducted by the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the grand jury, and the Congressional committees. The work of almost all those institutions, which unearthed and developed all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate, is systematically ignored or minimized by Bernstein and Woodward. Instead, they simply focus on those parts of the prosecutors’ case, the grand-jury investigation, and the FBI reports that were leaked to them.

The result is that no one interested in “how we know” about Watergate will find out from their book, or any of the other widely circulated mythopoeics about Watergate. Yet the non-journalistic version of how Watergate was uncovered is not exactly a secret—the government prosecutors (Earl Silbert, Seymour Glanzer, and Donald E. Campbell) are more than willing to give a documented account of the investigation to anyone who desires it. According to one of the prosecutors, however, “No one really wants to know.” Thus the government’s investigation of itself has become a missing link in the story of the Watergate scandal, and the actual role that journalists played remains ill understood.

Adam Nagourney writes:

After the late – afternoon Page One conferences, where Punch Sulzberger would sit quietly to the side as the editors debated the news of the day, offering questions but not opinions, they would retire to Rosenthal’s private office to share a bottle of wine and trade gossip about correspondents and salty jokes about pretty women, the kind of banter that was accepted from powerful men of that era.

Only powerful men in that particular era engaged in salty jokes about pretty women? Is Adam Nagourney gay? According to Wikipedia: “Nagourney is gay, as was his predecessor as chief political correspondent at the Times, Rick Berke.”

I’ve never been a powerful man, but I’ve enjoyed that kind of banter for about fifty years now.

Adam Nagourney was called a “major league asshole” by President George W. Bush and many of Adam’s peers agree.

* Nagourney writes:

[Howell] Raines was less driven by ideology than competitiveness. He wanted stories that commanded public attention, that were exciting to write and to read. Every ambitious reporter at the Times knew this was how he measured success, and that included Judith Miller. And the single biggest unanswered question in the summer of 2002, the most obvious target for a story, was the one that had been assigned to Miller and [Michael] Gordon about weapons of mass destruction.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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