Drunk History, a new cable TV show based on the inane premise that history is entertaining when told by inebriated narrators, isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
If the first episode is an indication, incoherent history makes for faint humor. Even worse, the inaugural show promotes a notably tenacious media myth in offering a chaotic look at the Watergate scandal of 1972-74.
In doing so, Drunk History draws heavily, if erratically, on the 1976 film, All the President’s Men. The movie focused on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post — and was central to the rise of the myth that Woodward and Bernstein brought down the corrupt presidency of Richard Nixon.
The media myth of Watergate has helped make accessible to contemporary audiences a complex scandal that unfolded 40 years ago. But it’s an inaccurate interpretation; not even the Washington Post embraces it, as I point out in my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong.
As Woodward said in an interview several years ago with American Journalism Review:
But back to the blurry first episode of Drunk History: Woodward is shown meeting “Deep Throat,” his secret Watergate source, in an underground garage in suburban Virginia. And he throws up on the source’s shoes.
Vomit humor: Now that’s inspired.
Woodward then asks “Deep Throat” — who was a senior FBI official named W. Mark Felt — for help in understanding the scandal.
“Put the pieces together, you dumbass,” Felt snaps. “It’s all in front of you. Do the work. Just be careful. Watergate is the tip of the iceberg.”
In the compressed Drunk History version of Watergate, Nixon soon realizes he has no choice but to resign.
“And in the end,” the narrator says, “you can toss aside Richard Nixon for all his cynicism, you can toss aside Mark Felt for all his cynicism, but you can’t toss aside Robert Woodward, and to a lesser extent, Carl Bernstein, for the truth that they exposed for America.”
That’s really not a bad touch, tweaking the pompous Bernstein for having had a “lesser” role in Watergate. Which is not entirely inaccurate, given that Felt was Woodward’s source. Bernstein first met Felt in 2008, shortly before Felt’s death.
“Well,” the narrator says, “we told the story of Watergate. There’s no way I could possibly misconstrue it as not the greatest journalistic endeavor ever told. Robert Woodward would be proud.”
Watergate was scarcely that.
Unraveling the scandal, as 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, 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 to cover up the seminal crime of Watergate, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee.
So against the complex tableau of special prosecutors, federal investigations, and bipartisan congressional panels, Woodward and Bernstein’s contributions in unraveling the scandal were modest at best, and certainly not decisive to Watergate’s outcome.
In its tipsy way, Drunk History pokes at the conventions of documentary history, as the New Yorker has noted. Otherwise, there’s little to cheer about the show, which was a Web-based series before moving to cable. Whatever humor Drunk History projects isn’t likely to be sustaining.
A far more humorous send-up of Watergate — and of Woodward and Bernstein — is the underappreciated 1999 film, Dick. Although Woodward and Bernstein are not the central characters, the movie depicts them as antagonistic incompetents who bungle their way to a Pulitzer Prize.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Still hardy after 40 years: The myth that Woodward, Bernstein brought down Nixon
- Where do they get this stuff?
- Proxies for reality: Fact-based films and their mythmaking potential
- ‘All the President’s Men Revisited’: A mediacentric rehash with some insight
- Woah, WaPo: Mythmaking in the movies
- What was decisive in Watergate’s outcome?
- Historian dismisses as ‘self-promotion’ the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate
- Another movie list, another myth invoked
- Some snarky history from WaPo
- PBS set to embrace ‘mass hysteria’ myth in anniversary show on ‘War of Worlds’?
- Getting It Wrong goes on Q-and-A