Fake Watergate Heroes: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Fake Watergate Heroes: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This is another in a series of articles about Watergate people and events, as the 50th anniversary of that scandal continues to unfold.

This June 17 will mark 50 years since five burglars were caught red-handed in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. We will be regaled once again with laudatory tales of the two intrepid cub reporters, whose dogged investigative work thwarted a determined cover-up by President Richard Nixon and his henchmen.

Yet much of what Woodward and Bernstein did was print leaks from the disgruntled FBI associate director, Mark Felt, regarding the current state of the government’s Watergate investigations. Lead career prosecutor Earl Silbert publicly stated that none of their revelations were of use to government prosecutors since they already possessed such information.

There are several disturbing actions by Woodward and Bernstein to keep in mind in this regard.

Woodward failed to pursue leads that might cloud his preferred Watergate narrative.

It is said that the duo was first approached by Robert Redford, who explained that he wanted to do a movie about them rather than about Watergate itself, but wanted to base it on a book he thought they should write right away — instead of waiting for the scandal to unfold fully. Thus, their book was written with the movie in mind.

The nickname of their principal source, Deep Throat, was not used in connection with their reporting — publicly or privately. Instead, it was added to their manuscript at the suggestion of their publisher, who felt the book needed more sex appeal.

Deep Throat’s actual identity was kept hidden, supposedly due to journalistic ethics, until Felt was outed by his daughter in 2005. Unfortunately, he was too senile to confirm any actual details. Yet, for over 30 years, Woodward allowed — even encouraged — the common belief that Deep Throat was a member of Nixon’s White House staff, someone who had become so disgusted at the rampant criminality that he (or she) shared details with the young reporter. While completely untrue, it made for a great story — and one far more sensational than something leaking from the FBI.

The truth behind a separate troubling event did not emerge until Jeff Himmelman’s book Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee was published in 2012. He tells the story of his discovery of a seven-page Bernstein memo in Bradlee’s files, detailing Bernstein’s highly improper interview with a Watergate grand juror. The duo had not only denied ever having conducted such interviews — for the prior four decades — but had falsely attributed information garnered from them as having come from a campaign secretary known only as “Z.” When confronted with undeniable proof of their subterfuge, Woodward threatened to ruin the author if the true story was ever revealed. Himmelman’s chapter “Z” is well worth reading, since it describes the highly ignoble conduct of two prominent media heroes.

Then there are the stories of Woodward’s “non-pursuit” of promising leads, particularly those that might cloud his preferred Watergate narrative. The most egregious example is recorded in his own typed notes from his December 5, 1974, interview with the recently resigned Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski.

There, in the second sentence of his notes’ opening paragraph, appears the following sentence: “Says there were a lot of one-on-one conversations that nobody knows about but him and the other party.” Now, here was a mystery worthy of determined scrutiny. Who could this other party be, whom Jaworski seemed to credit with the key role in resolving the Watergate scandal? We’ll never know why Woodward chose not to press Jaworski further in that interview or afterward. Perhaps because he feared it would lead to a story he didn’t want to uncover.

It was not until 2013 that this mysterious “other party” became known. That’s when Jaworski’s confidential Watergate files, the ones he’d improperly removed when leaving office in October 1974, first surfaced. They had been reclaimed by our National Archives and opened to the public in response to my FOIA request. As it turns out, Jaworski had been secretly meeting with Chief Judge John Sirica to work out issues in advance of the Watergate trials. Jaworski’s files contain allusions to at least a dozen such highly improper meetings, any revelation of which would have led to both Sirica and Jaworski being immediately removed from further Watergate involvement — and perhaps even disbarred.

But back to Woodward’s December 5 interview notes (now publicly available at the University of Texas in Austin). His second and third paragraphs detail how Jaworski’s attorneys met secretly with House Judiciary Committee staff to work out how otherwise secret grand jury materials could be transferred to Congress. This, too, would have been a bombshell story, but Woodward never pursued it.

Woodward and Bernstein went on to great wealth and fame, stimulating thousands of aspiring investigative reporters and changing the face of the news forever. Previously, only editorials and opinion columns carried bylines. Straight news stories — using the “five Ws” (who, what, where, when, and why) set forth in the objective inverted triangle fashion taught in journalism classes — conveyed actual news. Today, in contrast, all stories contain bylines, with “reporters” struggling to sensationalize every story in an attempt to become better known for their craft. Indeed, the messenger is frequently seen as more important than the message itself — all as a result of Woodward and Bernstein’s notoriety. Perhaps it is just another unintended byproduct of the Watergate scandal.

Geoff Shepard joined President Nixon’s White House staff in 1969, upon graduation from Harvard Law School, and served for five years, including acting as deputy counsel on his Watergate defense team. He has written several books about Watergate, including The Nixon Conspiracy (Bombardier Books, 2021). Learn more on his website at www.ShepardOnWatergate.com.

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