W. Joseph Campbell

Movies, and a myth, for the Fourth

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 4, 2010 at 12:28 pm

The online site movieviral.com today offers a top 10 listing of what it terms the “best movies that involve July 4th, politics, and other historic events in US history.”

The list–yes, another list of favorite movies–merits attention here principally because of the inclusion of All the President’s Men. The movie–as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking prominent media-driven myths–helped solidify the notion that two young and intrepid reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

The movieviral.com post says that All the President’s Men “follows Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they uncover what would become known as Watergate, thus ending the political career of President Nixon.”

Woodward and Bernstein did not “uncover” the Watergate scandal, although the notion they did, I write in Getting It Wrong, “is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

And as Edward Jay Epstein wrote years ago in a superb essay about the news media and Watergate, “the FBI, the federal prosecutors, the [federal] grand jury, and the Congressional committees … unearthed and developed all the actual evidence and disclosures of Watergate.”

Indeed, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the defining and decisive elements of the Watergate scandal—the cover-up and the payment of hush money to the burglars who were arrested at Democratic national headquarters in June 1972. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein uncover the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office, which proved so critical in forcing the president’s resignation.

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate–not Woodward and Bernstein–disclosed the existence of the White House tapes that captured Nixon’s complicity in the coverup. Special federal prosecutors on Watergate pressed for their release. And the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974  unanimously ordered Nixon to turn over key tapes that had been subpoenaed by the special prosecutor.

Those were pivotal events that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, against the tableau of prosecutors, courts, federal investigators, and bipartisan congressional panels, “the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein were modest, and certainly not decisive.

“Principals at the Post have acknowledged as much. Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s doughty publisher, often insisted the Post did not topple Nixon.”

Indeed, as Graham said at a program in 1997 marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary, “The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Woodward has concurred, albeit in earthier terms.  “To say that the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit,” he said in 2004 in an interview with American Journalism Review.

The movieviral.com roster includes a particularly fine selection in the musical comedy 1776, which, as the site says, “follows the Second Continental Congress for the three months in the hot 1776 summer [when] it deliberated and eventually signed the Declaration of Independence.”

1776 is engaging and entertaining, and I always try to find time to watch at least a portion of the movie on the Fourth. I’ll do so today.



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