Watergate-- or rather, the myth of what Watergate was-- is dead. I’m not referring to the sepulchral emergence of the 92-year old Mark Felt (aka, “Deep Throat”) this past summer, although that anti-climactic event did help put a tidy pair of brackets around the fading zeitgeist. No, Watergate-- an event that shaped the worldview of a generation of American journalists—lies buried beneath the rubble of Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the leaking of the name of special CIA operative Valerie Plame. Like many aging corpses, the myth shows signs of a long, slow decline into irrelevant senility; nevertheless, the final blows have been painful to watch.

The coup de grace came on Friday afternoon, known to politicians and media watchers alike as “document dumping” day, the time when bad news is buried by the weekend in order to avoid media scrutiny. This time, however, it seems that it was the media itself that did the dumping. “A New York Times reporter has given investigators notes from a conversation she had with a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney weeks earlier than was previously known,” wrote Reuters late Friday. “Reporter Judith Miller discovered the notes -- from a June 2003 conversation she had with Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- after her testimony before the grand jury last week.”

Miller’s explanation of events “is now simply not credible,” wrote bloggers at the Daily Kos. “It is NOT unfair now to speculate that a New York Times reporter conspired with members of the Bush Administration in a scheme to discredit a critic of the Bush regime. It is NOT unfair now to speculate that the management of the New York Times is engaged in obfuscation and stonewalling in order to cover up its complicity in Ms. Miller's actions.” “Miller has, in a way, done more to diminish the credibility and reputation of the nation's leading paper than did fabulist Jayson Blair,” added David Corn.

Only a week before, Miller made her triumphant return to the Times newsroom, feted by a steak dinner and "one-third of a martini in a gorgeous glass,” crowing about “a deal with prosecutors that no one had ever gotten before.” For months, the Times had mounted a concerted campaign to turn Miller into the second coming of John Peter Zenger, comparing her at one point to “Rosa Parks … Daniel Ellsberg … and Martin Luther King.” Miller is “is surrendering her liberty in defense of a greater liberty, granted to a free press by the founding fathers so journalists can work on behalf of the public without fear of regulation or retaliation from any branch of government,” the Times proclaimed on July 7. Over the course of the next 85 days, the Times editorial staff provided readers with no less than four additional updates on Miller’s plight.

The problem, of course, was that the moment Judy Miller was sprung from jail the whole “government versus press” storyline began to fall apart. Most immediate was the question of why Miller agreed to talk: was it due to the fact that that she’d finally received a “special, non-coerced waiver” from “Scooter” Libby, as she claimed, or was Libby’s offer identical to the one he’d made months before, as his lawyer argued? Then, of course, there was the text of the infamous “Aspen’s turning” letter Libby sent to Miller in jail. More mush note than legal correspondence, the letter not only contained scads of bad love poetry (“out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them”) it may very well have detailed the scope and limits of Miller’s testimony (“the Special Counsel identified every reporter with whom I had spoken about anything in July 2003). Finally, of course, came the bombshell that Miller had “discovered” a second set of notes detailing a conversation with Libby from June 2003, which, accompanied by the Times sudden silence on the entire affair, announced that the game was at last up.

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Consumers of alternative media, of course, will probably not be all that surprised by the course of this sodden scandal-- we’ve never bought into the Watergate myth of the heroic corporate press serving as a check on the government. Even so, its important to realize the manner in which what media critic Jay Rosen calls “the great redemptive story of the press” lies at the heart of American journalism. For thirty years, Watergate justified the reporter’s privilege even when our laws never did; it preserved the myth of a crusading press even as more and more media outlets were turned into neglected arms of distant multinational corporations. Most importantly, Watergate served as a warning to mendacious politicians and as an inspiration to freshly minted j-school graduates saddled with enormous student loans—a free press is essential to democratic self-governance, the story went, and even in its worst, most scandal-ridden moments it’s something worth preserving.

The Watergate myth began crumbling long before Judy Miller started writing for the New York Times, of course. Whether it was Janet Cook’s infamous (and completely invented) series on drug-abusing children in the 1980’s, or the Jayson Blair scandal, or the more mundane, daily slime produced by the modern presidential campaign, we’ve all known for a while that there was plenty between myth and reality that didn’t quite match up. But none of those scandals, or a dozen others, could ultimately drive a stake through the heart of the Watergate story. For that, it would require the nation’s leading newspaper to invoke the highest of journalistic principles in the service of what increasingly looks like a tangled web of deception and outright fraud.

The Times, you see, did not treat the jailing of Judith Miller like any other story; instead, they bet the house on her (odd, perhaps, considering her past behavior in he run-up to the Iraq War.) The most solemn and fundamental principles of journalism were invoked, while the unmasking of “Deep Throat” was itself used as an object lesson in the importance of anonymous sources. “This is a proud but awful moment for The New York Times and its employees,” wrote the paper’s editorial board on the day of Miller’s jailing.

“Ms. Miller has taken a path that will be lonely and painful for her and her family and friends. We wish she did not have to choose it, but we are certain she did the right thing. We stand with Ms. Miller and thank her for taking on that fight for the rest of us.”

Indeed.