Becoming Well-Read: All the President’s Men

Ashley: “It’s all fake news,” President Donald Trump has said about the accusations that members of his team were in contact with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election. In response to the growing Russia scandal, legendary nightly news anchor Dan Rather wrote, “Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now.”

Admittedly, I am a political baby, born in 1990, well after Watergate. Of course, I know the basics of the Watergate scandal, since historians have had enough time to sort out at least some of the lasting impacts it had on politics. And I’m just old enough to have some nostalgic fondness for a world before the Internet, before fake news and people’s opinions could spread just as quickly — if not faster — than facts.

This month, I decided to read All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (the two journalists who first reported on the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post) not just because I fear for journalism’s future, but because I find it increasingly ironic how I learned about its past. 

In high school, as someone who spent lots of time writing fan fiction and harbored lofty goals of one day being a writer, I loaded up on as many reading and writing courses as I could, including Journalism I and later Journalism II. Now, I really liked the teacher, and I do think it was a good intro to written journalism. But in teaching us about how the public learned about the dirty tactics of President Richard Nixon’s administration, I mostly remember watching the movie version of All the President’s Men. (Similarly, to learn about how terrible willfully lying and making up sources for an article is, we watched the movie Shattered Glass, about journalist Stephen Glass, who wrote many totally made-up articles. I also remember watching Ratatouille. I think that was just because the teacher liked Ratatouille and that’s how high school goes sometimes.)

And look, I get it. If we were assigned to read the book All the President’s Men, it’s unlikely that many people would’ve really done that. But watching a movie in class? Now that’s exciting stuff, and condenses all the big picture stuff we needed to know. Unfortunately I don’t have the opportunity to fall asleep in math class anymore, and with President Trump barring The New York Times and other news organizations from press conferences, it seems high time I taught myself a few more things about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate.

What I Think It’s About: Funny story — though I actually had to watch All the President’s Men twice (Journalism I and II were not, in fact, very different curriculum), I don’t remember any specific details. I remember they had such fantastic ’70s hair. I’m sure Deep Throat makes an appearance. And President Nixon. You know, maybe I didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn from this after all…

What It’s Actually About: Two journalists with different writing styles, Woodward and Bernstein, form a strong friendship as they track a secret fund of cash used to fund the break-in and attempted wiretapping of the Democratic National Committee headquarters back to President Richard Nixon’s administration. So easy to summarize, yet the process of proving the president’s men definitely had a hand in illegal activities takes a lot of work and involves a seemingly never-ending list of names.

Why You Should Read It Right Now: Despite journalists giving first-hand accounts of protests on Twitter and 24-hour cable news, it seems safe to say that generally, society has very little transparency into the investigative journalism process. While highlighting all the passages that made my brain scream “BUT THAT IS JUST LIKE TODAY!” sure was frightful fun, All the President’s Men’s greatest strength is not in its retelling of the Watergate events, but in giving a behind-the-scenes look at the process of how a story gets written.

Because the truth is, fake news has always been with us, a constant problem as people lie, misremember, or mask the truth in so much smoke and mirrors that it’s not clear what they even intended to say. One of the biggest blunders Woodward and Bernstein made during their investigation involved a lot of questionable strong-arm tactics used on anonymous sources who really did not want to comment. When Bernstein wanted a Justice Department lawyer to confirm or deny that White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman had control over the fund used to pay the Watergate burglars, the lawyer insisted he couldn’t say anything. “So they would do it another way: Bernstein would count to 10. If there was any reason for the reporters to hold back on the story, the lawyer should hang up before 10. If he was on the line after 10, it would mean the story was okay.”

The lawyer got the instructions backwards. Other sources also misunderstood what the reporters asked. Bernstein and Woodward had to go to court over the misinformation they published. It gave credence to the White House’s false claims that Bernstein and Woodward’s reporting for The Washington Post was just slanderous misinformation. “Using innuendo, third-person hearsay, unsubstantiated charges, anonymous sources and huge scare headlines, the Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate — a charge which the Post knows and half a dozen investigations have found to be false,” said Clark MacGregor, the director of the Committee to Re-elect the President.

It’s hard being a reporter when literally nobody can tell you things on the record and all official, public statements cannot be taken at face value. Reading this account and trying to keep all the names and facts and who said what and the implications of that reveal can, quite honestly, be exhausting and difficult. And I don’t even have any pressure to unravel one of the biggest political scandals of all time.

As the Trump and Russia investigation continues, follow Bernstein and Woodward through their yearlong investigation on one huge story that took a lot of detours around huge deterrents along the way. And remember that while breaking a story today takes little more than composing a 140-character tweet, finding the true facts among all the alternative ones takes a lot of time and persistence.

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