W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Cinematic treatments’ Category

Why is he biopic worthy? Movie planned about Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ source

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on November 27, 2015 at 7:22 am

The best-known anonymous source of the Watergate scandal, a former senior FBI official code-named “Deep Throat,” would receive hero’s treatment in a planned biopic, the shooting for which reportedly is to begin in March.

The movie is to be called Felt, the name of the “Deep Throat” source, W. Mark Felt, who cut a checkered career in government service.

Besides being a secret, high-level source for Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, Felt in the early 1970s was the agency’s acting associate director. In that role, he authorized several burglaries as part of the FBI’s investigations into the radical Weather Underground.

Early this month, the Hollywood press was abuzz about the planned Felt biopic. The show business daily, Variety, said the film would be “a spy thriller” in which Felt wages an “isolated and dangerous struggle against the White House.” Shooting the film is to begin in March, Variety said, and Liam Neeson and Diane Lane may fill lead roles.

Felt: Biopic worthy?

Felt: Biopic worthy?

All of which prompts inevitable questions: Why is Mark Felt, who died in 2008, biopic worthy? Even if the movie never makes it to production, why should Felt be considered a hero?

He was no noble figure. Felt was convicted in 1980 of felony charges related to the warrantless break-ins, known in the FBI as “black bag jobs,” and fined $5,000. He was not sentenced to prison for the crimes.

The year after his conviction, Felt was granted an unconditional pardon by President Ronald Reagan.

In its obituary about the former FBI official, the Los Angeles Times recalled that tears welled in Felt’s eyes as he acknowledged on the witness stand having approved secret break-ins by FBI agents between May 1972 and May 1973 — “roughly the same time he was talking to Woodward about Watergate.”

Felt and co-defendant Edward S. Miller justified the warrantless entries on grounds of national security.

The prosecutor in the case, John W. Nields Jr., said at the trial that FBI agents who conducted the breakins Felt approved had entered residences in New York City  and New Jersey, “dressed in old clothes or disguised as telephone repairmen,” according to a New York Times report about the trial.

The agents picked locks or paid cash to landlords to obtain keys, Nields said, and they “searched every room in the home, methodically looking through desks, closets, clothing and private papers for clues to the whereabouts of the Weathermen. With a camera that could be concealed in an attaché case, the agents photographed diaries, love letters, address books and other documents.”

Nields said Reagan’s pardon of Felt and Miller came as a surprise. “Nobody spoke to me about it,” the New York Times quoted him as saying. “I would warrant that whoever is responsible for the pardons did not read the record of the trial and did not know the facts of the case.”

Felt was hardly acting altruistically in passing Watergate-related information to Woodward; their periodic meetings included six in a parking garage in suburban Virginia. I argued in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, that the contributions of Woodward and his Post colleague Carl Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate scandal were modest at best and that their reporting in no way can be thought of as having forced President Richard Nixon to resign.

In leaking to Woodward, Felt sought to undercut the acting director, L. Patrick Gray III, and thereby enhance Felt’s chances of being named to the bureau’s top position, as Max Holland persuasively argued in his book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. The book makes clear Felt was motivated by ambition in the internal struggle at the FBI to replace J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving director who died in May 1972.

Felt lost out, and retired in 1973.

Perhaps Felt the movie will collapse in its preliminary stages, which is the fate of many Hollywood projects. A biopic about Mark Felt is a bad idea in any case.





The hero-journalist trope: Watergate’s go-to mythical narrative

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 23, 2015 at 6:10 pm

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s produced America’s gravest political crisis of the 20th century.

Nixon got Nixon

Nixon quits

And yet, because Watergate was such an intricate thicket of lies, deceit, and criminality — and because it unfolded more than 40 years ago — a sure understanding of the scandal can be defiantly elusive. Collective memory about the many lines of investigation that unwound Watergate and forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency has inevitably grown faint.

What endures is the heroic-journalist trope, Watergate’s dominant popular narrative, which rests on the notion that dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed Nixon’s criminal misconduct and forced his resignation. It has become the go-to explanation about how Watergate was exposed, and it is an endlessly appealing interpretation.

It also is a prominent media-driven myth.

Which takes us to a movie review posted today at the online site of WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, D.C.

The review discusses the perversely named Truth, a new motion picture that celebrates former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and producer Marla Mapes who in 2004 used fraudulent documents to claim President George W. Bush dodged wartime service in Vietnam. (Because it stars Robert Redford in Rather’s role, Truth has invited comparisons — not all of them favorable — to All the President’s Men, the 1976 film in which Redford played Woodward of the Post.) 

The WTOP reviewer has little truck with the Truth story line, saying it “would have been far better … to paint the characters as fallen figures who admit they screwed up, rather than misunderstood scapegoats who were taken down by The Man.”

Fair enough. But then, to demonstrate how assiduous journalists ought to proceed, the review reaches for the heroic-journalist trope of Watergate and declares:

“If Woodward and Bernstein ran the story too early — before they had actual proof from reliable sources — Nixon would have stayed in office, the Watergate would simply be a fancy hotel, and ‘All the President’s Men’ would not exist.”

The reference to “the story” is puzzling, given that the reporting of Watergate went far beyond a single article in the Washington Post. The scandal produced extensive news reporting over many months, from the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington to the resignation of Nixon in August 1974, following disclosures that he had approved a plan to cover up the break-in.

And to assert that “Nixon would have stayed in office” if not for Woodward and Bernstein is to be decidedly in error — and to indulge in a powerful myth of American journalism.

It is a tempting trope, to be sure. As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the heroic-journalist interpretation offers “ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Not even Woodward has embraced the heroic-journalist myth. He once told an interviewer for American Journalism Review:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

And in an interview with the PBS “Frontline” program, Woodward said “the mythologizing of our role in Watergate has gone to the point of absurdity, where journalists write … that I, single-handedly, brought down Richard Nixon. Totally absurd.”

He’s right: Woodward and Bernstein did not topple Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Their reporting did win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973. But Woodward and Bernstein did not break the most crucial stories of Watergate.

They did not, for example, disclose the extent to which the Nixon administration covered up of the crimes of Watergate. Nor did they reveal the existence of the secret White House audio tapes, the contents of which were decisive to Watergate’s outcome.

The so-called “Smoking Gun” tape captured Nixon’s approving a plan on June 23, 1972, to divert the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in. The tape’s release sealed the president’s fate.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his term.


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Confronting the mythology of Watergate

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on August 6, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I plan to call attention to prominent media myths of Watergate during a panel discussion in Montreal this afternoon, three days shy of the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s resignation in America’s gravest political scandal.

AEJMC 2014 panel_flier3The venue is the annual conference of AEJMC, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, and other panelists include Max Holland, author of the well-received Watergate book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, and my colleague at American University, John C. Watson, author of Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.

Moderating the panel — titled “Beyond the Mythology of Watergate” — will be Mark Feldstein of the University of Maryland and author of the award-winning Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.

I intend to discuss the dominant narrative of Watergate — the mythical notion that the dogged reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate crimes of Nixon and forced his resignation.

It’s what I call the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate.

The trope is endlessly appealing to journalists and has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate. It is, after all, a handy proxy for grasping the essence of Watergate — Nixon resigned because of criminal misconduct — while avoiding the scandal’s mind-numbing complexity.

The many layers of  Watergate — the webs of lies, the deceit, and the criminality that characterized the Nixon White House; the multiple lines of investigation that slowly unwound the scandal, and the drama of a constitutional crisis — are not easily understood or readily recalled these days. The scandal that unfolded from 1972 to 1974 has become so distant that few Americans can accurately describe what took place.

Hence, the enduring appeal and tenacity of the heroic-journalist myth. It’s history lite, history made accessible, history made simple.

As I plan to point out today, the disclosures by Woodward and Bernstein about the unfolding Watergate scandal in 1972 weren’t nearly enough to force the president’s resignation. And the decisive revelations of Watergate — among them the existence of Nixon’s White House taping system — weren’t the work of the Washington Post.

Indeed, as I pointed out in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong: To roll up a scandal of the dimensions of Watergate “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 in office if not for the Watergate tapes, which clearly showed him approving a cover-up of the seminal crime of Watergate — the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972.Getting It Wrong_cover

The heroic-journalist myth — and the celebrity cult of Watergate — were solidified by the film adaptation of All the President‘s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. I note in Getting It Wrong that the cinematic version of All the President’s Men “allows no other interpretation: It was the work Woodward and Bernstein that set in motion far-reaching effects that brought about the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president.”

The movie in fact ignores and even denigrates the work of other agencies and actors in the many-tenacled investigations of Watergate.

But why, some observers might ask, do Watergate, and Woodward and Bernstein, still matter after 40 years? Why does anyone much care?

They care because Woodward and Bernstein are living reminders of the unmasking of America’s greatest political scandal — one that sent to jail nearly 20 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

Woodward and Bernstein are septuagenarians but they speak eagerly about their salad days, especially on occasions presented by the anniversaries of Watergate. The Post brought them together last week for what turned out to be a surprisingly boring look back at Watergate. That tedious program notwithstanding, their saga remains an appealing parable — that dogged and imaginative reporting can make a difference, can bring about dramatic change.

They very much are the heroic faces of Watergate, the journalists who saved us from Nixon.


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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2013

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, Television, War of the Worlds, Washington Post on December 29, 2013 at 10:09 am

Media Myth Alert reported in 2013 on the appearance of numerous and prominent media-driven myths and errors. Here are the five top writeups posted at the blog during 2013, followed by a roster of other mythbusting posts of note.

PBS squanders opportunity in tedious War of the Worlds documentary (posted October 29): The year brought the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous and clever War of the Worlds radio adaptation, which told of a deadly Martian invasion of Earth. Welles’ show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly was so frightening that it pitched tens of thousands of Americans into panic and mass hysteria.

Orson Welles

Orson Welles

But as I discussed in my 2010 mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong,  the radio dramatization produced no such effects. Panic and hysteria were wildly overstated by newspapers of the time.

PBS took up The War of the Worlds program in a documentary that aired October 29, on the eve of the radio show’s 75th anniversary. The PBS program not only made The War of the Worlds seem tedious, it represented a missed opportunity to revisit the famous but much-misunderstood program in fresh and searching ways.

“PBS could have confronted head-on the question of whether the radio show … really did provoke hysteria and mass panic in the United States,” I wrote.

Instead, I added, “The documentary’s makers settled for a turgid program that was far less educational, informative, and inspiring than it could have been.” It failed to address the supposed effects of Welles’ radio dramatization in any meaningful way.

My critique was seconded by the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, who wrote in a column after the documentary was broadcast:

“I find myself in agreement with the judgment of W. Joseph Campbell, the well-known critic and author of ‘Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism’ who headlined his comment:  ‘PBS squanders opportunity to offer “content that educates” in “War of the Worlds” doc.’”

Obama’s ‘Cronkite Moment’? (posted May 14): The online news magazine Salon found great significance in liberal TV comedian Jon Stewart’s obscenity-laced tirade in May about the scandals battering the administration of President Barack Obama.

Stewart’s criticism, Salon declared, evoked “one of the most famed moments in broadcasting, when CBS News legend Walter Cronkite delivered an editorial opinion after the Tet Offensive in February 1968,” suggesting that negotiations could lead to a way out of Vietnam.Salon logo

Salon proceeded to step into media myth by describing how Cronkite’s commentary supposedly was received by President Lyndon Johnson:

“Apparently watching at the White House, President Johnson, who had lost the left long ago, reportedly turned to an aide and said, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.’ Just a few weeks later, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.”

Salon offered a muddled caveat by stating parenthetically: “Critics say the event has been widely misreported and overblown, but it still looms large in the American consciousness of the era, even if apocryphally.”

How’s that? It “looms large … even if apocryphally”? Simply put, the so-called “Cronkite Moment” is apocryphal.

Cronkite’s commentary about Vietnam was, as I discuss in Getting It Wrong, no epiphany for Johnson, and it had nothing to do with his deciding not to seek reelection in 1968.

In fact, Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He wasn’t at the White House, either. He was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie birthday party for Governor John Connally.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that Jon Stewart’s rant has figured at all in Obama’s fading popularity. Far more decisive has been the botched introduction of the Obama administration’s health-care plan.

London’s Independent invokes Jessica Lynch-Pentagon myth (posted January 28): The year brought the 10th anniversary of the Washington Post’s stunningly inaccurate tale of the supposed heroics of 19-year-old Jessica Lynch during an ambush in Iraq.

In the years since, news reports sometimes have claimed — without citing supporting evidence — that the  Pentagon concocted the story about Lynch. In January, for example, London’s Independent newspaper declared “the Pentagon exaggerated [Lynch’s] story as it waged a propaganda war, stating that she had fought back heroically against the enemy when in fact she had never fired her weapon.”


Stunningly inaccurate

But that was not the Pentagon’s line. Not according to Vernon Loeb, the then-Post reporter who helped thrust the hero-warrior tale about Lynch into the public domain in a front-page story published April 3, 2003.

Loeb’s story, on which he shared a byline with Susan Schmidt, turned out to be wrong in every significant detail: Lynch never fired a shot in the ambush at Nasiriyah; her weapon jammed during the attack in which 11 American soldiers were killed. She was neither shot nor stabbed, as Loeb and Schmidt reported.

Although the newspaper has never disclosed the identities of the “U.S. officials” on which it based its botched story, Loeb said in an interview with NPR in December 2003 that the Post’s “sources for that story were not Pentagon sources.”

Loeb said he “could never get anybody from the Pentagon to talk about” the Lynch case, adding:

“I just didn’t see the Pentagon trying to create a hero where there was none. I mean … they never showed any interest in doing that, to me.”

The erroneous report about Lynch’s battlefield derring-do, by the way, did little damage to Loeb’s career. He left the Post in 2004 to become an investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times. Later, he moved to the Philadelphia Inquirer as deputy managing editor for news before returning to the Post in 2011 as metropolitan editor.

And next month Loeb will join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor.

WaPo refuses to correct clear error on Nixon’s mythical ‘secret plan’ (posted August 13):  Even in its clear decline, the Washington Post can be an arrogant news organization.

This tendency was on display last summer in its refusal to acknowledge and correct an inaccurate reference to Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

The reference was embedded in the Post’s front-page obituary about Helen Thomas, a querulous and overrated Washington journalist who covered the White House for years for United Press International.

WaPo_HThomas obit_2013

WaPo’s Thomas obit

The obituary, written by Patricia Sullivan, claimed that Thomas once “asked President Richard M. Nixon point-blank what his secret plan to end the Vietnam War was.”

But there is no evidence that Thomas ever posed such a question. The nearest approximation came at a news conference in late January 1969, when Thomas asked Nixon about his “peace plan” for Vietnam. Peace plan: She didn’t ask about a “secret plan.”

The Post’s error had broader dimension in that it suggested an embrace of the notion that Nixon ran for president in 1968 claiming to have a “secret plan” to end the war  in Vietnam.

Which is untrue. Nixon did not campaign for the White House touting a “secret plan.” The belief that he did, though, circulates still, as supposedly powerful evidence of Nixon’s devious and conniving ways.

The obituary’s writer, Sullivan, said as much, telling me by email:  “I recall the Nixon years and his promise during his candidacy that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War, which he would not explain in detail.”

In fact, Nixon was asked during the 1968 campaign about having a “secret plan” to end the war. And according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on March 28, 1968, he replied that he had “no gimmicks or secret plans.”

He also said: “If I had any way to end the war, I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.”

I brought all this to the attention of the Post’s reader representative, Douglas Feaver, noting that if the newspaper can point to an occasion when Thomas asked Nixon about a “secret plan” on Vietnam — if it could back up Sullivan’s claim, in other words — then that would represent an intriguing though modest contribution to the understanding about Nixon’s campaign in 1968. It would indicate that journalists at the time suspected Nixon was less than forthcoming about his intended war policy.

If, on the other hand, the Post could not identify such an occasion, I wrote, then a correction was in order.

Feaver took more than 2 1/2 weeks to reply to my query and when he did, he absolved the Post of error, stating: “I see nothing here that deserves a correction.”

Coincidentally, not long after the Post published its flawed obituary, the newspaper was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com.  In an open letter to the newspaper’s employees soon after the sale was announced, Bezos stated:

“We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.”

If that sentiment does become policy, it certainly will be none too soon.

Hearst mostly elusive in ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary (posted March 15): The Hearst Corp., founded in 1887 by William Randolph Hearst, commissioned a documentary about the company and its much-misunderstood founder that promised to tell “the wonderful Hearst story.”

At least that’s what the director, Leslie Iwerks, said in introducing the film at its Washington, D.C., debut in March.

Citizen HearstThe documentary, titled Citizen Hearst, turned out to be something less than a revealing portrait. Its consideration of Hearst’s long career in journalism was  fast-paced but superficial.

The film notably avoided discussing young Hearst’s aggressive brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

The zenith of the “journalism of action” came in 1897 in the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.

The Cisneros jailbreak, organized by a reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, offered rich material for a documentary. But it received no mention in Citizen Hearst.

The film, moreover, only superficially considered Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions of the early 20th century. It made no mention about how Hearst then turned his newspapers into platforms to support those goals.


Other memorable posts of 2013:

Vomit humor and scandal: Inane ‘Drunk History’ TV show promotes Watergate media myth

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 8, 2013 at 8:10 am

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.


Drunk History, which  debuts tomorrow night on DrunkHistory_logoComedy Central (the pilot is available online), features what the show’s  Web site says is an “often incoherent narration of our nation’s history.”

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 movie as inspiration

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:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horseshit.”

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.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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‘All the President’s Men Revisited’: A mediacentric rehash, with some insight

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm

The much-ballyhooed documentary, All the President’s Men Revisited, was mostly a mediacentric rehash of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago. Even so, the show, which aired last night on the Discovery channel, managed to present insight into the forces that really uncovered the criminality of what was America’s gravest political scandal.

The two-hour program took a look back at Watergate often through the context of All the President’s Men, the 1976 cinematic adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s eponymous book about their Watergate reporting for the Washington Post.

The movie, which starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, idealized Woodward and Bernstein, identifying their reporting as central to uncovering the scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. The first hour of the Discovery program similarly emphasized that misleading interpretation, mostly through frequent snippets of interviews with the aging Woodward and Bernstein.

The inescapable impression was that their reporting was essential to spurring the federal and congressional investigations that ultimately produced tape-recorded evidence that showed Nixon conspired to cover up the signal crime of Watergate — the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

That interpretation — that Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting set the table for the crucial official inquiries — is favored by the Post (its Web site explains Watergate that way).

But  it is utterly misleading.

As serious historians of Watergate have demonstrated, federal investigators were far ahead of Woodward and Bernstein in their piecemeal reporting about the unfolding scandal in the summer and fall of 1972.

For example, Max Holland, author of Leak, a book about Watergate published last year, has aptly noted:

“Federal prosecutors and agents never truly learned anything germane from The Washington Posts [Watergate] stories — although they were certainly mortified to see the fruits of their investigation appear in print. … The government was always ahead of the press in its investigation of Watergate; it just wasn’t publishing its findings.”

What’s more, the Post’s investigation into Watergate “ran out of gas” by late October 1972, Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, acknowledged in an interview in 1974.

The most interesting segments of All the President’s Men Revisited were during the program’s second hour, when the federal and congressional investigations of Watergate figured prominently. At the same time, Woodward and Bernstein receded noticeably from the limelight, replaced by the likes of Alexander Butterfield, the former White House aide who disclosed that Nixon recorded his conversations in the Oval Office.

Butterfield’s revelation about the tapes came during a U.S. Senate select committee’s investigation into Watergate — and represented a decisive pivot in the unfolding the scandal. Nixon ultimately was compelled to surrender audiotapes that demonstrated his role in attempting to coverup the Watergate breakin. He resigned soon afterward.

Interestingly, All the President’s Men Revisited  made clear that Woodward and Bernstein did not break the story about the existence of the tapes — and pinned the blame on the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee.

Woodward recounted in the program (as he did in the book All the President’s Men) that he had heard about the tapes and asked Bradlee about pursuing a story along those lines. Bradlee, according to Woodward’s recollections, rated a prospective story about the tapes a B-plus: Not good enough for Woodward to pursue immediately.

(In the book, Bradlee is quoted as saying: “See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it.” And the reporters didn’t, thus failing to report a pivotal story about the scandal.)

The program’s second-half focus on the federal and congressional inquiries in a way addresses a major flaw of All the President’s Men, the movie, which was criticized for ignoring the contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and congressional panels in ripping away the coverup of the Watergate break-in.

The movie’s narrow focus, I wrote in my media-mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, served “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth” of Watergate — the notion that the dogged work of Woodward and Bernstein brought down Nixon.

While the program did not challenge the deeply entrenched heroic-journalist myth, All the President’s Men Revisited did offer an historically accurate interpretation about how the scandal unspooled: As such, it rather succeeded where the movie had clearly failed.


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William Randolph Hearst mostly elusive in new ‘Citizen Hearst’ documentary

In 1897, Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Error, Furnish the war, Reviews on March 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

Citizen Hearst was a mostly unsatisfactory biography published in 1961 about media baron William Randolph Hearst. It was more caricature than revealing portrait.

Citizen HearstThe title, Citizen Hearst, has been reprised for documentary that opened in several theaters this week. The documentary — commissioned by the media company that Hearst founded 126 years ago — is no revealing portrait, either.

Hearst was an innovative yet often-contradictory figure, and this complexity is largely elusive in Citizen Hearst, an 84-minute film that had its Washington, D.C., debut screening last night at the Newseum. The director, Leslie Iwerks, introduced the film by saying it told “the wonderful Hearst story.”

The opening third of Citizen Hearst delivers a fast-paced if mostly shallow look at Hearst’s long career in journalism. After that, the film turns mostly gushy about the diversified media company that is Hearst Corp.

To its credit, Citizen Hearst steers largely clear of the myths that distort understanding of Hearst and his early, most innovative years in journalism.

His affable grandson, Will Hearst, is shown in the film scoffing at what may be the best-known anecdote in American journalism — that William Randolph Hearst vowed in a telegram to the artist Frederic Remington to “furnish the war” with Spain.

The anecdote is undocumented and utterly dubious, but it was presented at face value in the biography Citizen Hearst. It is an irresistible tale often invoked in support of a broader and nastier media myth, that Hearst and his newspapers fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Citizen Hearst the documentary doesn’t embrace the warmongering myth (although former CBS News anchor Dan Rather is shown saying he was taught in school that Hearst practically brought on the Spanish-American War).

The documentary, however, fails to consider the innovative character of Hearst’s newspapers of the late 19th century.

It notably avoids discussing Hearst’s eye-opening brand of participatory journalism — the “journalism of action” — which maintained that newspapers were obliged take a prominent and participatory roles in civic life, to swing into action when no other agency or entity was willing or able.

This ethos was a motivating force for one of the most exceptional and dramatic episodes in American journalism — the jailbreak and escape of Evangelina Cisneros, a 19-year-old political prisoner held without charge in Spanish-ruled Cuba.


Evangelina Cisneros

A reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, supported by clandestine operatives in Havana and U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, broke Cisneros from jail in early October 1897.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of an American-educated Cuban banker (whom she married several months later). Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The Cisneros jailbreak was stunning manifestation of Hearst’s “journalism of action” and it offers rich material for a documentary. It was, as I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history.

It receives not a mention in Citizen Hearst.

The documentary presents only superficial consideration of Hearst’s mostly unfulfilled political ambitions — and avoids mentioning how he turned his newspapers into platforms to support those ambitions.

Hearst wanted to be president, and was a serious contender for the Democratic party’s nomination in 1904. He lost out to Alton Parker, a New York judge, who in turn was badly defeated by Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

Citizen Hearst presents the observations of no serious Hearst biographer: No David Nasaw, author of The Chief, an admirably even-handed biography published in 2000; no Kenneth Whyte, author of The Uncrowned King, an outstanding work published in 2009 about Hearst’s s early career.

Instead, Dan Rather is shown speaking vaguely about Hearst’s journalism (“he played big”). Movie critic Leonard Maltin makes several appearances, discussing such topics as headline size in Hearst’s fin de siècle newspapers.

The documentary treats Helen Gurley Brown, she of Cosmopolitan fame, much like a rock star. And Hearst company officials are quoted often and sometimes at length.

HuffingtonPost was quite right in noting in a review posted Wednesday that the film turns into “something you’d expect to see playing on a loop on the lobby TV screen at Hearst’s headquarters”  in New York.

It leaves you wondering how many people would pay to see it. Or why.


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Woodward ‘destroyed the Nixon presidency’: More dubious history from Rush Limbaugh

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on March 1, 2013 at 7:21 am

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh was at it again yesterday, offering up the dubious interpretation that Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting “destroyed the Nixon presidency.”

That’s a seriously exaggerated version of the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Not even Woodward embraces that interpretation, once telling an interviewer: “To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

(Woodward(Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

(Jim Wallace/Smithsonian)

Limbaugh’s remark about Woodward’s having “destroyed the Nixon presidency” came during a lengthy commentary about Woodward’s recent criticism about the administration of President Barack Obama.

Woodward has asserted that Obama proposed the controversial sequester plan — the automatic federal spending cuts that are to begin taking effect today.

What most intrigues Media Myth Alert is Limbaugh’s repeated claim that Woodward’s reporting was decisive in ending Nixon’s presidency. The talk-show host’s remark yesterday about Woodward and Nixon marked the second time this week he has made such an assertion.

On his show Monday, Limbaugh said flatly that “Woodward brought down Nixon” in the Watergate scandal.

The record, though,  is far more nuanced and complex than that: Woodward and his Washington Post reporting colleague Carl Bernstein played rather modest roles in unraveling the scandal.

Their reporting in the summer and fall 1972 progressively linked White House officials to a secret fund used to finance the foiled burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee — the signal crime of Watergate.

But by late October 1972, the Post’s investigation into Watergate “ran out of gas,” as Barry Sussman, then the newspaper’s city editor, later acknowledged.

Significantly, Woodward and Bernstein did not break such crucial stories as the existence of Nixon’s audiotaping system at the White House. The tapes ultimately provided evidence that the president had obstructed justice by approving a scheme to deflect the FBI’s inquiry into the burglary.

The disclosure about the taping system came in July 1973, during a Senate select committee’s investigation into the unfolding Watergate scandal.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein disclose the payment of hush money to operatives arrested in the burglary — a key development in tying the White House to the Watergate scandal.

I discuss the media myth of Watergate in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, and write that the scandal demanded “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.”

What I call the hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting brought down Nixon — stems in large measure from the 1976 motion picture, All the President’s Men.

The movie, an adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book by the same title, concentrated on the  reporters and ignored the far more decisive contributions of subpoena-wielding investigators and special prosecutors.Getting It Wrong_cover

The movie was critically acclaimed and widely seen. Its effect, I write in Getting It Wrong, was “to solidify and elevate the heroic-journalist myth, giving it dramatic power, and sustaining it in the collective memory.”

All the President’s Men, the movie, promoted a simplistic yet readily accessible interpretation of the Watergate scandal that is often invoked — as Limbaugh’s recent comments suggest. But it is an interpretation that nonetheless is utterly wrong.


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Runup to the Oscars: ‘Politically inspired movies’ and the myth of Watergate

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 22, 2013 at 2:51 pm

The runup to the Academy Awards ceremony brings inevitable bursts of nostalgia — as well as the almost-predictable appearance of hoary media myths.

CNN logoCNN.com today offered a gauzy look back at “politically inspired movies that have been nominated [for] or won” an Oscar. In doing so, CNN bought into the media myth of the Watergate scandal.

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.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting did not bring down Nixon. They didn’t uncover the scandal, either.

All President's Men

The movie

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:

To say the press brought down Nixon, that’s horse shit.”

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.


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Proxies for reality: Fact-based films and their mythmaking potential

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on January 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

The Sunday “Outlook” section of the Washington Post usually is such a ZeroDarkThirty_posterjumble of thumbsucker essays and middling book reviews that it deserves just passing attention.

What made yesterday’s “Outlook” an exception was an engaging critique of Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial new movie about the CIA’s years-long hunt for terror leader Osama bin-Laden.

The critique, written by former CIA official Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., suggests anew the mythmaking capacity of fact-based films. “Inevitably,” Rodriguez writes of Zero Dark Thirty, “films like this come to be seen by the public as a sort of proxy for reality.”

And that’s especially troubling because, as Rodriguez also points out:

“One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways.” Publicity for Zero Dark Thirty emphasizes that it rests upon careful research, Rodriguez notes; at the same time, the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, has insisted it’s “not a documentary.”

Carefully researched, yet with enough fictional or imaginative elements so that it’s no documentary: Such have been the ingredients of mythmaking by the cinema.

All the President’s Men offers a compelling example.

The hero-journalist myth of Watergate — the notion that the dogged investigative journalism of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency — was propelled and solidified by the cinematic treatment of Woodward and Bernstein‘s 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

The movie version was fact-based, but certainly no documentary treatment of Watergate (even though the Post once referred to the film as journalism’s “finest 2 hours and 16 minutes“).

As I note in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, All the President’s Men the movie offers “a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account of the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

The movie dramatized the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein while ignoring the far more decisive contributions of federal investigators, special prosecutors, and Congressional investigative panels.

The omissions made for a cleaner storyline — and promoted a media-centric myth that not even Woodward embraces.

“To say that the press brought down Nixon,” Woodward once told American Journalism Review, “that’s horseshit.”

WordPress_FreshlyPressed logoAll the President’s Men was made in 1976 and remains the most-viewed cinematic treatment of Watergate —  a “proxy for reality” about how America’s greatest political scandal was rolled up. It’s Watergate simplified.

Rodriguez says in his commentary that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty get a lot right: Notably, they “portray the hunt for bin Laden as a 10-year marathon, rather than a sprint ordered by a new president.”

His principal concern is the movie’s depiction of the interrogation of captured al-Qaeda operatives. The interrogation scenes early in the movie “torture the truth,” he writes, adding:

“The film shows CIA officers brutalizing detainees — beating them mercilessly, suspending them from the ceiling with chains, leading them around in dog collars and, on the spur of the moment, throwing them on the floor, grabbing a large bucket and administering a vicious ad hoc waterboarding. The movie implies that such treatment went on for years.

“The truth is that no one was bloodied or beaten in the enhanced interrogation program which I supervised from 2002 to 2007. Most detainees received no enhanced interrogation techniques, and the relative few who did faced harsh measures for only a few days or weeks at the start of their detention.”

I’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty. But Rodriguez’s critique seems well-reasoned. He advises theatergoers to recognize “that Zero Dark Thirty is more than a movie and less than the literal truth.”

I’d shift the obligation somewhat, away from moviegoers: It behooves the makers of fact-based movies to stipulate that “fact-based” doesn’t mean factual, that even high-quality cinematic treatments simplify and distort.

Fact-based movies ought not be served up in effect as history lessons for the public.

These are hardly new concerns, of course. “Is it possible,” Richard Bernstein wrote in 1989 in an essay in the New York Times, “to have successful cinema and good history at the same time?”

Perhaps, Bernstein added, “the rule of thumb is this: When artists, intentionally or not, distort the known facts to get an effect, either political or commercial, they are on the wrong side of the line between poetic truth and historical falsification. Artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow the truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history as well.”

Ideally, fact-based movies would be so compelling as to stimulate interest and curiosity, to encourage passive theatergoers to find out more about the subject, to conduct some research on their own.

Doing so isn’t always easy; but it can be an antidote to cinematic mythmaking.


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