W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘All the President’s Men’

Editor’s little-noted memoir offers intriguing insight about WaPo’s Watergate reporters

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 21, 2013 at 6:12 am

It’s mentioned on few if any “books of the year” lists, but the recent memoir by a former Washington Post editor offers revealing insights about the newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, describing how one of them, Carl Bernstein, was such a slacker that he was nearly dismissed in the early 1970s.

Rosenfeld memoir_coverThe memoir, From Kristallnacht to Watergate, is Harry Rosenfeld’s telling of his long career in newspapering. He was the Post’s metropolitan editor during Watergate and managed Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who in 1972 and 1973 were the newspaper’s lead reporters on the unfolding scandal.

Rosenfeld’s memoir adds dimension to the ample, mostly glowing public record about Bernstein and Woodward, who have been celebrated over the years as heroic journalists whose dogged reporting brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Or so the media myth has it.

Rosenfeld comes close in his book to embracing the myth of Watergate, stating that the Post “played a key role in assisting the ship of state to stay the course while navigating through the stormy waters of a constitutional crisis” that brought Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He makes scant acknowledgement of the more powerful investigative forces — congressional and judicial — that combined to uncover Nixon’s criminal misconduct and bring an end to his presidency.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the contributions of Woodward and Bernstein to Watergate’s outcome were modest at best.

Rosenfeld writes with evident pride about Woodward and the “intensity of his work habits.” By the time the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Rosenfeld says, Woodward “had established himself as a fully qualified reporter, sharper than most and more ambitious and hardworking than any.”

The most delicious passages of Rosenfeld’s book discuss Bernstein’s troubled times at the Post during the period before and shortly after the break-in in June 1972 at the headquarters in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, the signal crime of the Watergate scandal.

Bernstein, he writes, routinely antagonized his editors, was known for missing deadlines while regularly logging many hours of unapproved overtime, and was notorious for failing to submit expense reports. He also had a tendency on assignments to rent cars that he was slow to return, running up late charges for the Post.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

After such a caper in the summer of 1972, the Post’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, and its managing editor, Howard Simons, wanted Rosenfeld to fire Bernstein. He had “yet again rented a car and left it stranded in a parking lot for days, with costly rental fees mounting by the hour,” Rosenfeld writes.

But Rosenfeld demurred, telling the editors that dismissing Bernstein made no sense when, “‘for once in his life, Carl is producing the goods’” in reporting on the unfolding Watergate scandal. Bernstein kept his job.

Rosenfeld had laid groundwork for dismissing Bernstein in 1971, after the reporter had failed to submit an article about the port of Norfolk, VA, despite his many promises to produce the story.

Rosenfeld sat in on what he called “a heart-to-heart” conversation between Bernstein and his then-editor, Kevin Klose, who later became dean of the College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

After the heart-to-heart, Rosenfeld wrote in a memorandum that it had been made clear to Bernstein “‘that he either begins to be a productive reporter or he and the Post better go separate ways and that if cannot soon come to grips with his responsibilities to his job, that I would move against him on negligence of duty. …’”

Bernstein, Rosenfeld wrote in the memorandum, “‘understood that if he could not become productive and that if he and his editors continued to be antagonistic all the time, it would be better for him to leave. He said that … I would see a much changed man.’

“That new man,” Rosenfeld says, “clearly emerged in Watergate — a full year after his pledge. In the course of Watergate, the tiger changed his stripes, the leopard his spots, and Joshua commanded the sun not to set and the moon to stand still. The transformation was that epic. …. If he had persisted in his old ways … he almost surely would have been fired, for which the legal groundwork had been laid.”

Still, Bernstein’s redemption was less than total. Even when doing his best work, Rosenfeld notes in the book, Bernstein “still managed to remain irritating.”

So why, more than 40 years afterward,  is all of this important?

As Rosenfeld notes, it is “worth contemplating” how Bernstein — who remains one of America’s best-known and most outspoken journalists — nearly missed having an “historic role” in the Watergate story. Rosenfeld’s memoir also demonstrates how unpopular Bernstein was in the Post’s newsroom.

More important is that Rosenfeld’s unflattering characterizations, which clearly are offered not in hostility, bring some depth to the almost-reflexive characterizations of Bernstein as heroic, as a superstar. The unflattering material helps to deepen and round out the biography in a way that Woodward and Bernstein certainly did not do in their bestselling 1974 book, All the President’s Men.

Finally, the passages about Bernstein serves as a reminder that the most engaging memoirs are those not sanitized. Although the book has not received wide attention, Rosenfeld’s memoir is commendable for its candor about Bernstein.

WJC

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The Nixon tapes: A pivotal Watergate story that WaPo missed

In Anniversaries, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Forty years ago this week, Alexander Butterfield told a U.S. Senate select committee investigating the Watergate scandal that President Richard Nixon had installed a secret audiotaping system in his offices.

Butterfield’s disclosure was one of the most decisive moments in the Watergate. It focused the scandal’s multiple investigations into a months-long pursuit of the tapes — one of which clearly revealed Nixon’s role in attempting to cover up the crimes of Watergate. That revelation forced his resignation in August 1974.

The disclosure of Nixon’s audiotaping system was a major story which the Washington Post — often and inaccurately credited with having “uncovered” or “broken” the Watergate scandal — missed badly.

How the Post fumbled that story makes for an intriguing sidebar at the anniversary of Butterfield’s stunning disclosure. The newspaper’s lead Watergate reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, described in a book about their reporting how leads about the taping system were not pursued.

The book, All the President’s Men, says that Woodward had found out about private testimony that Butterfield had given to staff members of the select committee and he called Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, for guidance.

The call to Bradlee was on a Saturday night. After outlining what he knew, Woodward, according to the book, said:

“We’ll go to work on it, if you want.”

In reply, Bradlee is quoted as saying with some slight irritation, “Well, I don’t know.”

How would you rate the prospective story? Woodward asked him.

“B-plus,” Bradlee replied.

Woodward figured a B-plus wasn’t much, according to the book.

“See what more you can find out, but I wouldn’t bust one on it,” Bradlee is quoted as instructing Woodward.

And Woodward didn’t “bust one.”

Two days later, on July 16, 1973, Butterfield made his reluctant disclosure at a public session of the Senate select committee.

The following day, according to All the President’s Men, Bradlee conceded that the lead about the taping system was “more than a B-plus.”

The anecdote from All the President’s Men is suggestive of the overall minor role that the Post played in uncovering Watergate. As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, unraveling a scandal of the dimension 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 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 Watergate’s signal crime, the breakin in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

All the President’s Men was revealing in other ways about the work and conduct of Woodward and Bernstein. Media critic Jack Shafer, in a column in 2004, revisited a number of reporting flaws and ethical lapses that Woodward and Bernstein acknowledged in their book.

It’s a roster of transgressions that is too-little remembered.

WJC

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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.

Obviously.

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.

WJC

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.

WJC

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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)

Woodward
(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.

WJC

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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.

WJC

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Landmark status for WaPo building? Watergate reporting ought not be a factor

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 6, 2013 at 9:24 am
A landmark?

A landmark?

Could the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting of 40 years ago become a factor in designating the newspaper’s headquarters a local historic landmark?

If so, such a result would represent a serious misreading of history.

The Washington Business Journal  reported yesterday that the D.C. Preservation League plans to consider whether the Post headquarters building, built in 1950, merits landmark status.

The Post last week said it may put the building up for sale, citing economic and operational reasons.

The Business Journal described the Post building in downtown Washington as an example “of Modernist architecture” and added, in a passage of especial interest to Media Myth Alert:

“Beyond its age and architectural design, one could also make a case that the Watergate reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation makes it doubly historically significant.”

Doubly historically significant?

Hardly. Unless, that is, you embrace the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which has it that Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged reporting exposed the crimes that forced Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

But not even principals at the Post have claimed that the newspaper’s Watergate reporting “led to” or otherwise brought about Nixon’s resignation.

As Woodward once told the PBS “Frontline” program, “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.

“The Washington Post stories,” Woodward said, “had some part in a chain of events that … were part of a very long and complicated process over many years.”

And Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher during and afterward the Watergate scandal, said at a program at the Newseum in 1997:

“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.”

Quite so.

While it has become the dominant popular narrative of Watergate, the heroic-journalist meme has obscured the role of forces far more consequential than the Post in uncovering America’s gravest political scandal.

Those forces, as I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, included special federal prosecutors, federal judges, panels of both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” 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 burglary in June 1972 at headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

The existence of the White House tapes, by the way, was not uncovered by Woodward and Bernstein. That disclosure came in July 1973, at hearings of a Senate select committee on Watergate.

So it’s quite a stretch to argue that the Post’s modest-at-best contributions to uncovering the Watergate scandal makes its aging headquarters building especially “significant,” historically. (The newsroom certainly was made famous in All the President’s Men,  the cinematic version of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about their Watergate reporting. A replica of the Post newsroom was built for the movie at a studio in Los Angeles.)

The DCist blog had a bit of fun with the Business Journal report about prospective landmark status for the Post’s headquarters.

The building “has certainly seen its share of history,” the blog noted, “from the Pentagon Papers to the downfall of President Richard Nixon to Janet Cooke’s profile work to that time Dan Zak wrote about August.”

The Post and the New York Times were enjoined by the Nixon administration in 1971 from publishing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers — an injunction the Supreme Court invalidated in a 6-3 decision.

Janet Cooke was the Post reporter whose front-page story about an 8-year-old, third-generation heroin addict won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The newspaper surrendered the Pulitzer following disclosures that Cooke made up the story.

And Zak’s essay about August appeared in the Post last July 31. It included this passage:

“August is for avoiding thought. August is for thinking about August. August is for reading essays assaying the meaning of August’s meaningless.”

WJC

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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.

WJC

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The media myths of Watergate: Part Five

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 21, 2012 at 6:32 am

This is the last 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 address the often-stated claim that enrollments in college journalism programs in the United States
soared in the aftermath of Watergate.

Watergate made Gerald Ford president — and made journalism seem sexy

It’s a subsidiary myth of Watergate, that the reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post — made legendary by the cinematic adaptation of their book, All the President’s Men — turned journalism into glamorous and alluring profession.

So alluring and heroic were the depictions of Woodward and Bernstein as they, ahem, toppled a corrupt president that young adult Americans in the 1970s thronged to collegiate journalism programs.

A commentary last week in Post made just that point, declaring that the film had “inspired a generation of journalism school students.” Similarly, a recent essay at Gawker.com said the glowing accounts of Woodward and Bernstein’s work “helped swell enrollments at journalism schools across the nation as eager young college graduates came to view reporting not as a lowly trade but as a noble profession.”

But it’s a media myth that Watergate stimulated journalism school enrollments — a myth that endures despite its thorough repudiation by scholarly research.

As I discuss in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong (which includes a chapter confronting what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate), two scholarly studies about enrollments in collegiate journalism programs found no evidence that Watergate was much of a stimulus.

Enrollment data are reasonably good proxies as they would surely have reflected heightened interest in careers in the profession. If Watergate and All the President’s Men inspired broad interest in careers in journalism, evidence of the stimulus should be apparent in surging j-school enrollments.

But the evidence just isn’t there.

A study conducted for the Freedom Forum media foundation and released in 1995 found that “growth in journalism education” resulted “not from specific events as Watergate … but rather to a larger extent from the appeal of the field to women, who have been attending universities in record numbers. The growth also in part reflects the applied nature of the field and its link to specific job skills.”

The study’s authors, Lee Becker and Joseph Graf, stated flatly that “students didn’t come rushing to the university because they wanted to follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein ….”

A separate study, conducted by a senior journalism scholar, Maxwell E. McCombs, reported in 1988 that “the boom in journalism education was underway at least five years before” the Watergate break-in in 1972.

McCombs wrote:

“It is frequently, and wrongly, asserted that the investigative reporting of Woodward and Bernstein provided popular role models for students, and led to a boom in journalism school enrollments. The data … reveal, however, that enrollments already had doubled between 1967 and 1972.”

I point out in Getting It Wrong that the notion that Watergate reporting made journalism appealing and sexy lives on “because it seems irresistibly logical and straightforward— too obvious, almost, not to be true.”

Watergate’s presumed stimulus on journalism school enrollments is an attractive and simplistic construct, easy to grasp, and easy to remember.

And such characteristics — easy to grasp, easy to remember — often are propellants. Propellants of media-driven myths.

WJC

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The media myths of Watergate: Part Four

In Anniversaries, Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 20, 2012 at 7:40 am

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.

The movie won rave reviews. The New York Times called it “a spellbinding detective story” and “an unequivocal smash-hit — the thinking man’s Jaws.”

The Post once immodestly described All the President’s Men as “journalism’s finest 2 hours and 16 minutes” and “the best film ever made about the craft of journalism.”

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?

Nope.

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.”

WJC

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