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All the President’s Men

March 6th, 2012 · No Comments

Lauren Bowie, Becca Sears, Sam Foster, Nick Farr
All The President’s Men (1976)
Director Alan Pakula
March 7, 2012

Journalism in the Watergate Scandal

The 1976 film was produced surprisingly soon after the Watergate Scandal occurred in 1972.  All the President’s Men is based off the non-fiction book written by the two reporters who were on the story at the time.  The two journalists, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, worked for The Washington Post and took on what is now called some of the best reporting of all time.  Both the book and the movie are historically accurate and reflect the early days of the Watergate Investigation.  Bernstein and Woodward will forever be remembered as the men who unveiled one of the biggest scandals and controversies in American history.

First, it is important that we identify two supporting characters, both in the film and in the real life Watergate Scandal.  William Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat, was an agent of the FBI who finally revealed himself in May of 2005.  During his time as associate director with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he secretly helped Bernstein and Woodward investigate and uncover the Watergate Scandal, which eventually lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon.  Benjamin Bradlee, the Vice President of The Washington Post, also played a key role in the success of Woodward and Bernstein.  Allowing the two young, relatively unknown journalists to take on such a big story was, and still is, considered a unique and daring move by the Vice President of a newspaper, especially one as well-known as The Washington Post.  The two main characters, Woodward and Bernstein, were two journalist who had just joined Ben Bradlee’s team.  Both became famous for their exposure of the Watergate scandal and other “dirty-tricks” by the Nixon administration and re-election committee.  The movie and the real-life events, however, are often criticized as not being parallel stories.

All the President’s Men gives Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein all of the credit for revealing the Watergate Scandal which led President Nixon to resign.  James Boylan notes, “Actually, as political scientist Edward Jay Epstein noted back in 1973, the government itself cracked the case in its early stages” (81).  Epstein further noted that during the period between the break in and the trial, the press revealed the case to the public (81).  Boylan notes it would be hard to glamorize the reality of the scandal in the film.  Boylan further observes, “The ‘Wood-stein” model was credited with filling the journalism schools (although, in fact, the influx of students had begun years earlier) and restoring to newspaper work much of its lost glamour” (81).

In a 1992 Washington Post article, Ken Ringle highlighted how All the President’s Men strayed from fact.  Ringle notes, “Dialogue and incidents throughout the news-gathering process were manufactured or exaggerated.  Only the discoveries themselves remain wholly authentic” (Washington Post, 1992).  In the film, Woodward and Bernstein are depicted as working alone in the newsroom a lot.  This was not the case in reality – multiple journalists were working in the newsroom.  Some real life people were trivialized or omitted all together.  For instance, Barry Susseman, an editor who played a crucial role in assisting Woodward and Bernstein, wasn’t depicted in the film at all.  Ringle notes, “Other small events are rearranged, names changed, characters combined or fictionalized, all by people so purportedly obsessed with “authenticity” that they spent tens of thousands of dollars duplicating the Washington Post newsroom, right down to the labels on the filing cabinets, then shipped genuine Washington Post trash to Hollywood to clutter its desks” (Washington Post 1992).

We see in the film that The Washington Post took a hold of a news story that was not originally based on information being distributed by The New York Times. In fact, The New York Times was almost ignoring the Watergate Scandal entirely.  Typically, other newspapers would write stories that paralleled those being distributed by The Times, which we can relate to the idea of agenda setting by the media.  Agenda setting can be defined by the media theory that says we are not only told what to think, but what to think about through the influences of media.  Gate keeping, a closely related theme, is the media’s ability to distribute certain information to the public or audience.  Gate keepers determine what is broadcast to their viewers.  It is then interesting to see how The Washington Post and Ben Bradlee’s team took on such a large story that was seemingly set aside by other distributors.  Highly uncommon, Bradlee gave these two young journalists a story that was either going to make headlines or destroy the reputation and credibility of The Post. This was Bradlee’s way of socializing Woodward and Bernstein into the culture of the post, and also provides insight on the significance of a so-called ‘rite of passage’ news reporters must go through until they can be proven worthy of investigating important stories. Clearly, Woodward and Bernstein earned their right to take on crucial stories and took their abilities in government investigations and journalism to other scandals after the resignation of Nixon.

Although we can say this story is more or less accurate, aside from changes in dialogue and the absence of a few players in uncovering the story, the movie was based off of the words written by Bernstein and Woodward.  As media literate individuals, we know that both the authors of the story and Hollywood producers have the power to change the story as they see best-fit.  They have the power to set and create the agenda, as discussed earlier. Movies and film from the beginning were aimed to entertain all classes, and so it is important to keep in mind that producers will generally create in order to make a profit and stimulate their audience.  In the case of All the President’s Men, the audience was entertained and stimulated by the suspense of the movie and the general, historical plot.  Because it was made in the 70’s, almost directly after the scandal, the movie was another way of reaching out to a greater audience to make people aware of current events while providing entertainment, and gained a wider audience due to its relevance of the times. Watching and analyzing this film increases our media literacy, while also reinforcing the power of film.


Important Quotes

  1. “You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.” – Ben Bradlee
  2. “Look, you’ve been jerking my chain all day. If there’s some reason you can’t talk to me–like the fact that you’ve already leaked everything to The New York Times–just say so.” – Carl Bernstein
  3. “Goddammit, when is somebody going to go on the record in this story? You guys are about to write a story that says the former Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you’re right.” – Ben Bradlee
  4. Carl Bernstein: Boy, that woman was paranoid! At one point I – I suddenly wondered how high up this thing goes, and her paranoia finally got to me, and I thought what we had was so hot that any minute CBS or NBC were going to come in through the windows and take the story away. Bob Woodward: You’re both paranoid. She’s afraid of John Mitchell, and you’re afraid of Walter Cronkite.
  5. “We’re never told flat out ‘don’t talk.’” – Sloan
  6. “Follow the money.” – Deep Throat


Discussion Questions

  1. Compare the events in the film or the actual scandal to muckraking (ex. The Jungle, etc.).  Do you see any parallels between past muckraking and the film? How have muckrakers glorified characters in the past? How can we relate this glorification to the film?
  2. The film was based on the book All the President’s Men, which was written by Woodward and Bernstein after they exposed the scandal at Watergate.  Becoming media literate means being able to identify misguided information and acknowledging media influence on our society.  How can we relate this to the idea of translation, with respect to the actual story, to the book, and finally to the Hollywood production?
  3. In order to uncover many of the lies and secrets during the investigation of the Watergate Scandal, Woodward and Bernstein often planned out tricks they would use in order to get the full story from their sources.  Do you think this is an ethical way of getting information?  If “white lies” are told to a source in order to reveal important information, and eventually uncover a story that impacts society on a national level, is it morally justifiable?


Works Cited

Boylan, James. “Newspeople.” The Wilson Quarterly 6.5 (1982): 71-85. JSTOR. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.

Ringle, Ken. “Journalism’s Finest 2 Hours and 16 Minutes.” The Washington Post 14 June, 1992. 5 Mar. 2012.    te.htm



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