W. Joseph Campbell

LOC honor stirs references to Watergate myth

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 29, 2010 at 11:31 am

All the President’s Men, the movie that helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, was among 25 American motion pictures chosen for the 2010 National Film Registry, the Library of Congress announced yesterday.

I have no serious quarrel with the LOC’s selection. All the President’s Men is an entertaining and imaginative film, adapted from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book by the same title about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men came out in 1976, just as the wounds of Watergate were beginning to heal, and has aged quite well.

But as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men “offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press” in the fall of Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. The movie promotes the misleading yet beguiling heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

I note in Getting It Wrong that All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

And that message that “has endured,” I write. “More than thirty-five years later, what remains most vivid, memorable, and accessible about Watergate is the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.”

Nonetheless, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was at best marginal to the outcome of the scandal, in which 19 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail.

Nixon resigned in 1974, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction for his role in Watergate.

Rolling up a scandal of such dimension, I write in Getting It Wrong, “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But the cinematic version of All the President’s Men portrays none of that collective effort. In fact, the movie downplays, even denigrates, the contributions of investigative agencies such as the FBI.

The LOC’s announcement inevitably stirred references in mainstream media and the blogosphere to the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The New York Post, for example, said in referring to the movie’s recognition that the work of Woodward and Bernstein “led to the resignation of President Nixon.”

And in a lengthy and glowing post at Houston’s CultureMap blog, a film critic described Woodward and Bernstein as “fearless and relentless seekers of truth who helped to bring down the most corrupt President in U.S. history.”

He also wrote that All the President’s Men stood as “first among equals” among the movies selected for the National Film Registry and added that Woodward and Bernstein “set new standards for American journalism, and inspired thousands of idealists — along with more than a few amoral glory-hounds — to follow in their paths.”

Just what were those “new standards” was left unsaid.

And the work of Woodward and Bernstein may have “inspired thousands of idealists” to enter American journalism, but there’s only anecdotal support for such claims.

And scholarly research has shown that Woodward, Bernstein, and All the President’s Men did not cause enrollments to climb at journalism and mass communication programs at U.S. college and universities.

One such study was financed by the Freedom Forum media foundation and conducted by researchers Lee B. Becker and Joseph D. Graf. They reported in 1995 that “growth in journalism education result[ed] not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who ha[d] been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflect[ed] the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

Becker and Graf added:

“There is no evidence … that Watergate had any effect on enrollments.”

A final note about All the President’s Men and the National Film Registry: As the MovieNation blog at the Boston Globe pointed out, “It has to be the only film on the list that includes a scene set in the Library of Congress.”

That scene depicts Woodward and Bernstein at a table in the Library’s spectacular Main Reading Room, sorting through records of materials checked out by the Nixon White House. As they thumb through stacks of cards, the camera pulls away, slowly and upward, toward the Reading Room’s gold-inlaid dome. The effect is to suggest the lonely earnestness of the reporters’ work.


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