2011 ➤ Telling the Truth: a TV doc with a message for the times we live in

Robert Redford ,Dustin Hoffman ,All the President’s Men

“Woodstein” the investigating double act: Robert Redford cast as Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein in the colour-coded Washington Post newsroom built in Hollywood for the 1976 movie All the President’s Men

All the President’s Men, Jason Robards, Ben Bradlee

Fingertap. Clap hands. — Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee expressing his elation in All the President’s Men, after finally approving Woodward and Bernstein’s story of the century: “Run that baby!” [Exactly the same gesture that Charles Wintour would give at the London Evening Standard when elated]

◼ ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN should be compulsive viewing for everybody in public life in the UK right now. This, Robert Redford’s greatest achievement as producer, is also the greatest movie about how good journalism works. It examined the greatest crime in the history of American politics: the Watergate conspiracy that disgraced the White House in 1973. The scandal gave to our language the all-purpose suffix “-gate” for any corrupt activity in public life.

The film showed American journalism at the height of its power, and gave the language the team nickname “Woodstein”, derived from the two 30-year-old reporters who scooped the world, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their investigations would lead in 1975 to the takedown of the highest office in the land: the presidency of Richard Nixon.

In 2006 a thorough and thrilling half-hour TV doc appeared titled Telling the Truth About Lies, reporting on the making of the 1976 feature film, All the President’s Men, directed by Alan J. Pakula and written by William Goldman. The doc directed by Gary Leva is as steeped in the integrity of the screenwriters and film-makers as much as the feature movie itself faithfully tries to honour the diligence and persistence and courage of everybody at the Washington Post, under the editorship of Ben Bradlee and the enlightened direction of its publisher Katharine Graham. Leva was of course finally able to report the identity of Deep Throat, Woodstein’s anonymous senior source in the FBI, which had remained a mystery for three decades.

Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post for three decades: here with reporters Carl Bernstein, left, and Bob Woodward in 1972. She put Ben Bradlee in charge and gave him “remarkable freedom in the newsroom”. (Copyright Mark Godfrey. Estate of Katharine Graham)

It was ATPM that inspired Nick Davies, the Guardian’s key reporter who has dug deep into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, to become an investigative journalist. Given the current climate of ineffectuality and guilt spreading through Britain’s parliament, police and press — as documented in this week’s Spectator under the claim that “The omertà of Britain’s press and politicians on phone-hacking amounts to complicity in crime” — All the President’s Men should be a reminder to everybody in the British press today of the campaigning John Pilger’s famous charge that the first duty of journalists is to be “tribunes of the people”.

All the President’s Men, Jason Robards ,Ben Bradlee

Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men: click on image to run video clip

❏ Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee: “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.”

❏ ATPM on video — “We haven’t had any luck yet” — “Get some.”

❏ Producer and star Robert Redford who played reporter Bob Woodward: “I had to be extra diligent on being authentic. I spent so much time focussing on detail — the tiniest, tiniest details were important.”

All the President's Men, books, Woodward, Bernstein❏ Bob Woodward on writing the book on which the film was based: “Carl Bernstein and I were going to do a standard narrative about Watergate from the perspective of the Nixon White House” . . . Redford: “I said my interest is different, my interest is you guys and how you worked” . . . Bernstein: “Woodward came up to me one day and said he’d gotten a call from Robert Redford, and I said what the hell about? And he said, well, he thinks the story is really us. At the time we were still reporting the story and we sure didn’t think the story was really us.”

❏ Redford on the Woodstein team: “One guy was a Wasp, the other guy was a Jew. One was a Republican, the other guy was a radical liberal. They didn’t really care for each other but they had to work together. Now, that dynamic is character driven.” It is also so often the truth about working relationships in a newspaper office. You don’t have to like each other to produce first-class journalism.

❏ The Washington Post was sceptical about cooperating, Redford said, because the film could turn out to be “Hollywood crap”. Screenwriter William Goldman: “I was terrified because you knew that everybody who was going to talk about this film had at one time or another been in a newsroom. We knew if we Hollywooded it up we would be in terrible trouble.” The film nevertheless won four Oscars in 1976.

EPIC FINAL SCENE: 9 AUG 1974, NIXON RESIGNS

❏ ATPM on video — Ben Bradlee: “Nothing’s riding on this except the first amendment of the constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.”

BEN BRADLEE INTERVIEWED IN 1996


Allan Gregg In Conversation (above): Did you see a change in behaviour of politicians post-Watergate?

Ben Bradlee: “I thought I did for a few years afterwards. 1974 brought in a whole new young idealistic breed of congressman. For a while their ethics cast a shadow on the American political scene. It’s taken some years for them to work their way out of the system.

“But I don’t think I saw a fundamental change. I saw an increase in the fear of getting caught. I saw an increase in the quality of journalists joining the business – it attracted a lot of good young energetic people who were bright and dedicated. But, in long haul, I’m quite discouraged about the ethical content of American political life… Lying has become second nature to people; to fib first, and then lie.”

Coffee House, Economist
➢ Back to the coffee house: the internet is taking the news industry back to the conversational culture of the era before mass media — The Economist July 7 (above)

➢ News of the World fallout could change Britain’s media culture: “Do we want to replicate the media culture of countries such as France where three or four posh papers are read by a tiny proportion of the population?” — John Kampfner in today’s Guardian

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