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How the New York Times (and Almost Everyone Else) Missed the Watergate Scandal

Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, looks at The New York Times decision not to break the Watergate story. Ritchie, who has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades, reveals that it was a series of mistakes, not just one, that led to The Washington Post breaking the story. Ritchie’s book, Reporting from Washington, was also ahead of the pack, identifying Deep Throat as being in the FBI months before Mark Felt confessed.

Watergate is back in the news thanks to the recent confessions of a former New York Times reporter, Robert M. Smith, and his Washington bureau editor, Robert H. Phelps, about how they failed to report a hot tip on the Nixon administration’s involvement in the cover-up. Preparing to leave the paper in August 1972, to attend law school, Smith held a farewell lunch with acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, who revealed that his agents had found evidence of “dirty tricks” being employed by the Nixon reelection campaign, leading to the top levels. Smith reported this to Phelps, but he was leaving on a month-long vacation and let the story drop. The rest of the media has relished reporting on how the Times let the political story of the century slip away.

Of course, the rest of the media–with the notable exception of the Washington Post– fumbled the Watergate scandal as well. Even at the Post, the story was almost the exclusive property of two green reporters from the Metro section. Those who covered the national news dismissed the idea of presidential involvement in the Watergate burglary as being highly implausible. Washington correspondents may not have liked Richard Nixon, but they respected his intelligence and held it inconceivable that he would jeopardize his presidency by bugging his faltering opposition.

Without detracting from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s assiduous reporting, we know now that their chief inside information was coming from the FBI’s deputy director, W. Mark Felt. He systematically leaked in order to prevent the White House from derailing the FBI’s investigation. The insights Felt provided the Post kept the story alive for months.

When the Watergate burglars were arraigned, it was initially seen as a local police story. Since the New York Times’ Washington bureau only covered federal courts, the Times buried a short report deep inside the next day’s paper, while the Washington Post put it on the front page. Max Frankel, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, discouraged his correspondents from pursing Watergate. “Not even my most cynical view of Nixon had allowed for his stupid behavior,” Frankel later lamented. It went on that way for the rest of 1972, with the Post running story after story, and the rest of the media sharing the Times’ reluctance. Further clouding the Washington bureau’s judgment was its condescending attitude toward the Washington Post, which the New Yorkers regarded as little more than a provincial paper in a government town–a step or two above Albany. Despite Woodward and Bernstein’s prodigious output during the summer of 1972, Frankel insisted that their reporting failed to measure up to his standards of reporting. Small wonder, then, that Robert Smith’s tip never made it into the “paper of record.”

The New York Times finally got a handle on Watergate when it hired the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. In January 1973, Hersh scooped even Woodward and Bernstein by documenting how White House hush money had gone to the Watergate burglars. Reporters for other papers were developing their own leads and the rest of the pack piled on top. Ever since then–right up to the current revelations–Washington reporters have puzzled over why they missed the Watergate story for so long. The White House press corps came in for the harshest criticism, accused by former press secretary Bill Moyers of being “sheep with short attention spans.” But White House reporters, dependent on White House sources, were no more likely to uncover White House scandals than police reporters were to expose police graft. It took a couple of young, ambitious, local news reporters to think the unthinkable.

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