As I note in my forthcoming book, Getting It Wrong, cinematic treatments can and do “influence how historical events are collectively remembered and can harden media-driven myths against debunking.”
I invoke as an example the Watergate scandal, which culminated in 1974 with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It is often said that the Watergate reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein “brought down” Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men, was turned into a highly successful motion picture by the same title.
And as I write in Getting It Wrong, the cinematic version of All the President’s Men, which cast Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the roles of Woodward and Bernstein, “helped ensure that the journalists and their newspaper would be regarded as central to cracking the Watergate scandal.”
The item said the film “documents how the power of the press and the determination of two young journalists brought down this occupant [Nixon], who only two years prior had won re-election by the widest margin in history.”
It is, I write in Getting It Wrong, a misleading interpretation that “minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office.”
The “heroic-journalist myth of Watergate” took hold for a number of reasons, among them the sheer complexity of the scandal. Not only was Nixon turned from office but 19 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail.
The “heoric-journalist” memo has become, I write, “a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”
The cinematic version of All the President’s Men accomplished that, too, by offering what I call “an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”
The contribution of other agencies and entities in unraveling Watergate and prosecuting Nixon’s men is downplayed or ignored.
The Huffington Post item that invoked the heroic-journalist myth discussed 11 films that examine the American presidency, including two fine motion pictures, Primary Colors and the Manchurian Candidate.
Also on the movie list was Dick, an improbable spoof about Watergate and the Nixon White House that depicts Woodward and Bernstein as antagonistic incompetents who bungle their way to a Pulitzer Prize.