Nixon's Media Image Examined in New Book Russ Witcher looks at Nixon and the Newsweeklies after Watergate

Rarely has the media had such a time describing a leader as with Richard Nixon -- was he a liar or sympathetic figure, petty man or elder statesman, divisive force or foreign policy master, discredited politician or rehabilitated leader?

In his recently released book, "After Watergate: Nixon and the Newsweeklies," (University Press of America, 2000) Tennessee Tech University English-Journalism assistant professor Russ Witcher analyzes what three national newsweeklies -- Tme, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report -- said about Nixon from his resignation in 1974 to his death in 1994. What emerged from the study was an informative look at how Nixon was portrayed, how portrayals changed through the 20-year period, and how Nixon's efforts to rehabilitate his image were reflected in the coverage.

"The most significant result was that more than 80 percent of all the assertions about Nixon were neutral, suggesting a presence of objectivity in the national newsweeklies," said Witcher. "While there's no declaration that newsweeklies are or even claim to be objective, there are some clear conclusions dealing with what was said about Nixon during the years of attempted rehabilitation."

Nixon wrote in 1990 that he used five methods to try to influence opinion leaders: books, speeches, columns, television interviews and backgrounders to leading newspapers, magazines and TV networks.

"Clearly, Nixon believed in his ability to influence the agenda," said Witcher. "He was adept at using the media he professed to hate. For example, after his death, one of his aides wrote about his ability to leak his views during the 1992 presidential election, and one author wrote he was the 'master of the leaker's art,' taking advantage of the tendency of the press to respond more readily to a leaked story."

Witcher found evidence that Nixon's efforts were successful. In the first decade following Nixon's resignation, Newsweek and Time coverage predominantly featured negative themes: Nixon as the discredited/disgraced figure, a haunting/haunted national presence, a figure of sympathy or tragedy. In the second decade, the themes changed; Nixon became a rehabilitated figure, an elder statesman, a foreign policy master.

"A prominent theme in all three newsweeklies in the stories from the 1980s and 1990s indicate that Nixon was largely successful in coming back from his disgrace to re-establish his credibility as a public figure, said Witcher.

"There is an inherent fascination in the attempted comeback of a famous figure who has suffered a great fall," he said. "Most of the 18 themes I found in the newsweeklies, whether positive or negative, concern the personality rather than the political career of Nixon."

In the newsweeklies, Witcher also found that U.S. News and World Report had approximately four times the number of positive comments about Nixon during the 20 years than did Time and Newsweek, both of which had slightly more negative comments than positive. The findings support U.S New's long-held reputation as a conservative publication.

"Nixon's legacy will never be free from Watergate, but a more dispassionate look at the man can only be healthy for future leaders looking to learn from Nixon's mistakes," said Witcher. "Even Nixon sensed this. His reaction to a report of President Clinton's possible stonewalling of his own involvement in the Whitewater scandal was 'Didn't anyone learn anything from Watergate?'"