W. Joseph Campbell

Movies about journalists: Another list, another myth

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 17, 2010 at 6:31 pm

The blog True/Slant includes a ranking today of the 10 best-ever movies about journalism, and the Bogart film, Deadline U.S.A., tops the list.

This 10-best lineup was inspired by the series of newspapering movies running at Film Forum in Manhattan.

Absence of Malice (which I thought was dreadfully stereotypical), ranked second on the True/Slant list; The Paper was third, and All the President’s Men, the best-known movie about the Watergate scandal, was fourth.

Almost predictably, the description about All the President’s Men said:  “Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who reported the Watergate scandal and brought down a President. One of the few movies that makes journalism look like something worth doing.”

So there we are again–the hoary claim resurfaces that Nixon was “brought down” by the reporting of the intrepid Post reporters.

It’s what I call the heroic-journalist myth, and it’s addressed, and debunked, in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths.

I note in the book, which is due out this summer, that heroic-journalist myth of Watergate is one of the most appealing and self-reverential stories in American media history.

It is striking indeed how routinely and even off-handedly Bernstein and Woodward are credited with the accomplishment, especially when the record of Watergate shows that the Post’s reporting had at best a marginal effect on forcing Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Other forces and factors were far more decisive to the denouement of Watergate. As Howard Kurtz, the Post’s media reporter, has written:

“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [former White House lawyer] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”

Nixon’s White House tapes were crucial to the outcome. He resigned the presidency shortly after the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate special prosecutor.

One of the tapes undeniably showed Nixon participating in the coverup of the burglary at Democratic national headquarters, the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

I also note in Getting It Wrong that motion pictures have a way of solidifying media-driven myths in the public’s consciousness.

“High-quality cinematic treatments,” I write, “are powerful agents of media myth-making, and can enhance a myth’s durability.”

And so what’s my top movie about newspapering? The 1941 Orson Welles masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

And that’s probably because I get such a laugh every time I watch the scene that paraphrases William Randolph Hearst‘s purported vow “to furnish the war” with Spain.

That may be the hardiest media myth of all.

A sleeper in my lineup of best movies about journalism is John Ford’s 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

Why Liberty Valence?

Solely because of the movie’s greatest line, which is so applicable to media myth-making:

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


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