W. Joseph Campbell

A history lesson not to miss? No, but it is entertaining

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 18, 2011 at 9:14 am

The Blu-ray edition of the most-watched movie about Watergate, All the President’s Men, is out, and its release has been received with favorable-to-glowing reviews.

One writeup, posted the other day at HamptonRoads.com went so far as to declare: “This history lesson shouldn’t be missed — especially if you’re an aspiring journalist.”

Well, that’s disputable.

All the President’s Men is entertaining and has help up impressively well in the 35 years since its release. The movie purports to recount tell the ingenuity and persistence of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in investigating the scandal that ultimately brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Trouble is, All the President’s Men — which is based on Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book of the same title — offers up an entirely misleading view of history.

It unabashedly advances what I call “the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate” — the endlessly appealing notion that it Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged work that exposed the crimes of Watergate and forced Nixon to resign.

And that’s a trope that knows few bounds.

The heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate, as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, serves “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth. The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal” and brought about  Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.

Watergate also led to the conviction and imprisonment of nearly 20 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

To roll 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.

“Even then,” I add, “Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”

Only when ordered by an 8-0 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court did Nixon surrender the audiotape recordings, which revealed his efforts to obstruct justice in the early days of the federal investigation into Watergate.

The cinematic version of All the President’s Men glosses over, ignores, or even denigrates the contributions of federal investigative agencies. It makes little or no mention of special Watergate prosecutors or of the bipartisan Senate select committee on Watergate or of the pivotal Supreme Court decision.

Not only that, but as I write in Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie suggests that the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein “was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.”

As Woodward said in 1997, in an online chat at washingtonpost.com, “there is no evidence that anyone involved in the Nixon operation was going to threaten us.”

Because the cinematic version of All the President’s Men inaccurately places Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate’s unraveling, because it minimizes the far more decisive efforts of subpoena-wielding investigative agencies, the movie really can’t be called a “history lesson” not to be missed.

It elevates and solidifies the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate. That makes for good entertainment — and for very deceptive history.


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