The retrospective discussed the 1976 film All The President’s Men, noting that it “won four Oscars and was nominated for four more.”
The movie was an adaptation of a book by the Washington Post’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who, according to CNN, were “responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal and forcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon.”
All the President’s Men, CNN added, “provided context and drama about how the reporters brought down the most powerful man on Earth.”
That’s an expansive claim. It’s also glib, and totally mythical.
Far from it.
Woodward and Bernstein and the Post were at best modest contributors in unraveling an intricate scandal that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.
Indeed, when considered against the far more decisive forces and factors that uncovered Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions recede into near insignificance.
The decisive forces included special prosecutors, federal judges, the FBI, panels of both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court.
Even in the face of such an array of forces, I write 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 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up” of the signal crime of Watergate — the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
Notably, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t reveal existence of Nixon’s secret tapes, the contents of which proved vital in Watergate’s outcome. Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the extent of the attempted coverup of the crimes of Watergate.
What’s more, principals at the Washington Post have from time to time over the years dismissed the notion that the newspaper was central in forcing Nixon’s resignation.
For example, the Post’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, said in 1997 at a program marking the scandal’s 25th anniversary:
“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”
Even Woodward has scoffed at the notion, telling American Journalism Review in 2004:
The cinematic version of All the President’s Men contains few references to the subpoena-wielding authorities who really did break open the scandal. Instead, the movie leads audiences to just one, misleading conclusion — that the tireless reporting of Woodward and Bernstein was vital to Watergate’s ultimate outcome.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Proxies for reality: Fact-based films and their mythmaking potential
- The ‘newsroom where two reporters took down a president’? Sure it was
- Woah, WaPo: Mythmaking in the movies
- ‘Follow the money’ and the power of cinema
- Cinema and the tenacity of media myths
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Didn’t: A Watergate primer
- Talking ethics and the ‘golden days’ of Watergate
- Mythmaking in Moscow: Biden says WaPo brought down Nixon
- Little sustained media reflection two weeks after botched massacre coverage
- Suspect Murrow quote pulled at Murrow school
- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’