The heroic-journalist tale of Watergate–that two intrepid young reporters for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency–is one of the most appealing and self-reverential stories in American media history.
As I note in Getting It Wrong, an important factor for the tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth lies in its cinematic treatment. The media-centric storyline of Watergate was cemented by the film All the President’s Men, which came out to much acclaim in April 1976, 20 months after Nixon’s resignation.
An item posted the other day at the Politics Daily site fondly recalled All the President’s Men, saying the movie “about a bygone era” harkens to the “glory days of newspapers.”
The writer also indulged in the heroic-journalist myth, saying that the Post reporters “who brought down a sitting president” did so “with nothing more than shoe leather, determination, guts and a passion for the truth.”
It’s a wonderful story of journalists triumphant. But it’s exaggerated.
Even writers and officials at the Post have tried over the years to make clear that the newspaper and its reporters did not bring down Richard Nixon.
Howard Kurtz, the newspaper’s media writer, wrote in 2005, for example:
“Despite the mythology, The Post didn’t force Richard Nixon from office—there were also two special prosecutors, a determined judge, bipartisan House and Senate committees, the belated honesty of [former White House lawyer] John Dean and those infamous White House tapes.”
As I note in Getting It Wrong, “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 compelled by the Supreme Court [in 1974] did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.”
He resigned the presidency about two weeks later.
The cinematic version of All the President’s Men, however, placed Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the center of the unraveling of Watergate, while downplaying or dismissing the efforts of investigative agencies such as the FBI.
“The effect,” I write, “was to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”
The movie helped make the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate vivid, memorable, accessible, and central.
After all, no other Watergate-related movie has retained such an appeal, or has likely been seen by as many people as All the President’s Men.