This is the fourth of five posts addressing prominent media-driven myths about the Watergate scandal, which began unfolding 40 years ago this week, with
the foiled burglary at the headquarters
in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
This installment addresses the notion that the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
placed the reporters in grave danger.
No film or documentary about Watergate has been seen more often by more people than All the President’s Men, the 1976 adaptation of the eponymous book by the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
For all its glowing notices, All the President’s Men was often sluggish in pacing. More than a few scenes showed reporters at their desk, talking into telephones and banging away at typewriters.
Hardly gripping cinema.
But a measure of drama and menace was injected near the close of the movie (see video clip below).
That came when Woodward’s stealthy, high-level “Deep Throat” source, at a meeting in a darkened parking garage, grimly warns the wide-eyed reporter, played by Robert Redford:
“Your lives are in danger.”
But was it even true? Had Woodward and Bernstein, in their reporting about the misdeeds of men close to President Richard Nixon, unknowingly put their lives on the line? Were they targeted by Nixon’s henchmen? Or was this just dramatic license by Hollywood?
The movie leaves such questions hanging. The Woodward/Redford character informs the Bernstein character (played by Dustin Hoffman) about what “Deep Throat” said, and together they confer with the Post’s executive editor character (Jason Robards) — in the middle of the night, in the middle of the editor’s lawn.
But the movie closes before resolving the question of the hazards the reporters faced.
So were their lives really in danger?
Not according to the book, All the President’s Men.
The book discusses a late-night meeting between Woodward and “Deep Throat” in mid-May 1973 when the source — W. Mark Felt, a senior official at the FBI, as it turned out — advised the reporter to “be cautious.”
Woodward returned to his apartment and invited Bernstein to stop by. When he did, Woodward typed out a message and handed it to his colleague:
“Everyone’s life is in danger.”
Bernstein gave a curious look and Woodward typed another note:
“Deep Throat says electronic surveillance is going on and we had better watch it.”
Who was doing the surveillance? Bernstein asked in long hand.
“C-I-A,” Woodward silently mouthed.
For a time afterward, the reporters and senior editors at the Post took precautions to avoid the suspected surveillance of their activities.
Woodward and Bernstein wrote in All the President’s Men that they “conferred on street corners, passed notes in the office, avoided telephone conversations.”
But soon, they said, “it all seemed rather foolish and melodramatic” and they went back to their routines.
No evidence, they wrote, was ever found “that their telephones had been tapped or that anyone’s life had been in danger.”
At a program last week at the Newseum, Woodward said he took Felt’s warning “too literally. I think he was speaking metaphorically” about the hazards.
“I think it was an overreaction,” Woodward said.
On another occasion — an online chat five years ago — Woodward said the “most sinister pressure” he and Bernstein felt during Watergate “was the repeated denial” by Nixon’s White House “of the information we were publishing” as the scandal deepened.
Also in that chat, Woodward said of the cinematic version of All the President’s Men:
“The movie is an incredibly accurate portrait of what happened.”
Oh, sure, it is.
Even that Post review, which called the movie journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes, noted that All the President’s Men “over-glamorizes reporting, oversimplifies editing and makes power appear the only proper subject for a newsman’s pen.”
Recent or related:
- Woodward and Bernstein: The ‘only superstars newspapers ever produced’?
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- Inspirations to journalists: Woodward, Bernstein — and Gaga?
- The journos who saved us
- More mythical claims for WaPo’s Watergate reporting
- ‘Deep Throat’ garage marker errs about Watergate source disclosure
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Why they get it wrong
- Jon Krakauer rolls back claims about WaPo ‘source’ in Lynch case
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A