It has taken all of the 40 years since the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., to arrive at a proper understanding of the media's role in the scandal that broke a presidency. Even then, it is not the sheer passage of time that permits a balanced accounting. Rather, it is time plus some key disclosures and documents, including information gleaned from recordings surreptitiously made by President Richard M. Nixon; recent releases by the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act; the 2007 opening of critical portions from the Woodward and Bernstein Papers at the University of Texas's Ransom Center; and finally, confirmation, in 2005, that the über-secret source known as Deep Throat was in actuality W. Mark Felt, the bureau's No. 2 man in 1972-73.
Integrating all this information results in an understanding that diverges markedly from the first draft of history presented in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's 1974 book, "All the President's Men," and two years later, glorified in the eponymous movie. To be sure, the press played an instrumental, possibly irreplaceable, role. Yet contrary to the legend fomented by the book and film, the media did not save the day with truth its only weapon.
The linchpin in this mythic version, of course, has always been Deep Throat, or more precisely, the widespread public perception of his role. Regardless of whether one believed Woodward's initial 1974 rendering (Felt as principled whistle blower, trying to save the office of the presidency), or the more nuanced 2005 version presented in "The Secret Man" (Felt as savvy bureaucrat, trying to protect the bureau from Nixon's clutches), the fable hinged on the clandestine-minded Deep Throat and his "deep background" arrangement with Woodward. The late Christopher Hitchens noted as much when he observed, in his New York Times review of "The Secret Man," that Watergate ranked "as the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own."
So long as there was no consensus about Felt's true design, there was a gaping hole at the center of the narrative. The new documentation fills that void, and fractures the fairy tale at the same time.
Felt never intended to dislodge Richard Nixon; indeed, the president was Felt's ticket to his life's ambition, which was to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director. Felt leaked to the Washington Post (and in equal measure, to Time magazine) for one, self-serving reason: to incite a loss of confidence in the acting FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, so that after the election Nixon would nominate in Gray's stead an insider who really knew how to discipline the bureau, namely Felt himself. In this new portrait, Felt emerges as not only dismissive of the media for its shallowness and short attention span, as Woodward himself admitted in his first rendering. The FBI's No. 2 man actually held the press in contempt, knowing full well the ease with which it could be manipulated when in search of a front-page story.
With Felt's motive finally revealed, we can finally assess the timing, significance and real purpose behind his disclosures, and, eventually, arrive at a new understanding of the press' role (in addition to the publications already cited, one should include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Newsweek, Newsday and the "CBS Evening News").
The news media's most important accomplishment in the first five months after the break-in was simply keeping the story alive, via the fitful disclosure of fragments from the FBI's investigation. Preventing the break-in story from sinking into oblivion may seem rather mundane, but it was not, particularly given the combination of apathy and nonchalance that marked the electorate's response to the crime. In the predigital age, when the public and political agenda was shaped almost entirely by what author David Halberstam aptly called the media "powers that be," having the Post or Time follow a story for months carried with it potentially vast repercussions.
For one, the dissonance between what the news media reported from June to November and the initial paucity of legal results (only the burglars and their direct handlers were indicted and convicted) meant that the Nixon administration, after dismissing Watergate as a "third-rate burglary," opened for itself a yawning credibility gap. Continuing press coverage forced so many seemingly flat denials, along with the infamous non-denial denials, that when the first cracks in the cover stories began to fissure in 1973, the White House was never able to recoup the trust it had lost by refusing to be the first source of the bad news.
Simultaneously, the press coverage certainly influenced John J. Sirica, the federal district judge who tried the break-in case in January 1973. As evinced by his behavior in the courtroom, Sirica did not bother to disguise his disbelief that no higher-ups were involved. Press coverage suggesting the contrary, and that there was more to the story, surely played a role in the harsh sentences he meted out, although it must be said that long before Watergate he was known around the courthouse as "Maximum John."
Press attention to the story also played an undeniable role in precipitating far-reaching investigations other than the massive one undertaken by the FBI. The most significant of these, of course, was conducted by the famed Senate Watergate Committee in the spring and summer of 1973. Armed with subpoena power, the committee could investigate the scandal in a manner not available to the press, via the production of documents and appearance of officials (in addition to the burglars) compelled to testify under oath. While it might be too much to claim that but for the press coverage the Democrat-controlled Senate would not have mounted an investigation, it is undoubtedly true that press attention or the prospect of it – favorable or unfavorable – drives politicians like nothing else. This maxim is proven beyond a reasonable doubt not only by the conversations secretly recorded by President Nixon, but the equally surreptitious tape recordings made by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
As significant as these consequences proved to be, perhaps the most important effect is one that receives scant attention. Press coverage in the latter half of 1972, in fact, served as a prophylactic for the three federal prosecutors, Earl J. Silbert, Seymour Glanzer and Donald E. Campbell, who were investigating the burglary with the help of a grand jury and trying to figure out where it ultimately led. Keeping the story in the news meant that no one in the Justice Department dared question what they were doing, even when they subpoenaed such higher-ups as several of the president's closest White House advisers, along with former Attorney General John Mitchell, who headed the Committee for the Re-election of the President when it underwrote the burglary. Overcoming perjury and a conspiracy to obstruct justice, these prosecutors slowly closed the legal pincers until the cover-up cracked open. And make no mistake: It was the work of the grand jury and these prosecutors – not the press – that ultimately resulted in the Watergate adage that the "cover-up is worse than the crime." By the time special prosecutor Archibald Cox was appointed in May 1973, the U.S. attorneys were able to hand him a roadmap to the case that he would follow almost without exception.
Lawyers would call it an "admission against interest" for the press to acknowledge that it was, after all, just one of several actors in the Watergate drama, even if its supporting role was essential. Nonetheless, after more than four decades it is past time to apportion credit fairly instead of perpetuating
Watergate will still mark one of the news media's finer hours, even if the spotlight on the press' role is dimmed – or at least shared.