If Watergate Broke Today

Among the many pompous writers of press criticism, Joe Strupp must rank among the most annoying and foolish (though he’s not one-tenth as bad as MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman).

Strupp writes for Editor & Publisher:

If Watergate had broken today, chances are someone would have posted a news story with inaccurate information too early, or the in-depth reporting needed might have been neglected in favor of quicker, more immediate, and more broad-interest scoops. That is not to say that the Post, still among the best daily papers and Web sites in the industry, would not have been on top of the story. But there is no doubt that online and immediacy demands of today could have impacted the careful, slow-building and meticulous coverage.

Edward Jay Epstein named Mark Felt as Deep Throat in Commentary magazine in 1974. He wrote in its July issue:

A sustaining myth of journalism holds that every great government scandal is revealed through the work of enterprising re porters 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 Starts 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. 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.

…What was the role of the press in all this? At best, during the unraveling of the cover-up, the press was able to leak the scheduled testimony a few days in advance of its appearance on television. IF Bernstein and Woodward did not in fact expose the Watergate conspiracy or the cover-up, what did they expose? The answer is that in late September they were diverted to the trail of Donald H. Segretti, a young lawyer who had been playing "dirty tricks" on various Democrats in the primaries. The quest for Segretti dominates both the largest section of their book (almost one-third) and most of their "exclusive" reports in the Post until the cover-up collapsed later that March. Unidentified sources within the government gave Bernstein and Woodward FBI "302" reports (which contain "raw"-i.e., unevaluated-interviews), phone-call records, and credit card records, all of which elaborated Segretti’s trail. Through the FBI reports and phone records, they located a number of persons whom Segretti had tried to recruit for his "dirty-tricks" campaign. The reporters assumed that this was all an integral part of Watergate, and wrote that 11 the Watergate bugging incident stemmed from a massive campaign of political spying and sabotage…. The activities, according to information in FBI and Department of justice files, were aimed at all the major Democratic Presidential contenders." They further postulated that there were fifty other Segretti-type agents, all receiving information from Watergate-type bugging operations.

As it turned out, this was a detour, if not a false trail. Segretti (who served a brief prison sentence for such "dirty tricks" as sending two hundred copies of a defamatory letter to Democrats) has not in fact been connected to the Water, gate conspiracy at all. Almost all his work took place in the primaries before any of the Watergate break-ins in June 1972; he was hired by Dwight Chapin in the White House and paid by Herbert Kalmbach, a lawyer for President Nixon, whereas the Watergate group was working for the Committee for the Re-election of the President and received its funds from the finance committee. No evidence has been offered by anyone, including Woodward and Bernstein, that Segretti received any information from the Watergate group, and the putative fifty other Donald Segrettis have never been found, let alone linked to Watergate. In short, neither the prosecutors, the grand jury, nor the Watergate Committee has found any evidence to support the BernsteinWoodward thesis that Watergate was part of the Segretti operation. The behavior of the officials who steered Bernstein and Woodward onto this circuitous course makes in itself a revealing case study. Bernstein and Woodward identify their main source only under the titillating code-name of "Deep Throat," and indicate that "Deep Throat" confirmed their suspicion that Segretti-and political spying-were at the root of the Watergate conspiracy.

Judging by his work, it does not surprise me that Joe Strupp decided to get into journalism because of a Hollywood myth.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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