‘All the President’s Men’ warned us about the political news media long ago

“I don’t think [the news media] ever had a good handle on a political moment. It’s not designed for that…The algorithm is not designed for thoughtful engagement or clarity. It’s designed to make you look at it longer.” -Jon Stewart, interviewed by David Marchese in 2020 for The New York Times.

Although these words were recorded 44 years after the release of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, they echo through the film’s runtime as its protagonists, The Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are shown doggedly chasing down leads in order to tell the important story of the Watergate scandal to which no one was ready to listen. 

All the President’s Men remains one of the greatest political thrillers and journalism dramas of all time, and even after 45 years, it still stands as one of the most relevant. But even as we sit here in 2021, having lived through not one but two impeachment trials in the last two years, I believe that All the President’s Men is still relevant today not because of any sort of political moment, but because of its sadly evergreen portrayal of the American media ecosystem.

When a picture isn’t worth 1,000 words

Every time I watch it, I’m reminded that All the President’s Men doesn’t actually begin with the Watergate break-in. It begins with a recording of Nixon returning from China just in time to deliver a speech in a joint session of Congress. The whole sequence is shown through the lens of a television special, with political commentators remarking on how punctual Nixon was, or how jubilant his expression appeared. In this coverage, you’d be hard pressed to call any of it journalism, and that’s because it’s not. It’s theater, meant to entertain viewers. It’s “good television,” as they say.

From its very first shot to its final montage, All the President’s Men takes aim at television and the American media. Woodward and Bernstein aren’t just battling print deadlines and tight-lipped bureaucrats. They’re constantly pressing up against the boundaries of an industry that’s been irrevocably changed by television – one where news is entertainment, everyone’s competing for eyeballs, and the ones telling the flashiest story are getting the most views. And throughout the entirety of the film, we see that the television is clearly winning.

Even as Woodward and Bernstein exhaust themselves knocking on doors, spending hours in the library, and calling as many people as they can so that the truth about Watergate can be told, they struggle to find someone who will listen. Their newsroom is hesitant to run their stories, government officials balk at their “Watergate obsession,” and even when their work does appear in the pages of the Post, people only see what’s on TV. News networks air the Nixon administration’s “non-denial denials” with the same weight as the allegations themselves before quickly pivoting to the more engaging news of the day. 

One of the most telling scenes in the film features Bob Woodward speaking on the phone with a man who ends up giving him one of the most consequential tips of the Watergate story so far: a high-level member of the administration may have been involved with criminal activity. But while Woodward coaxes this information out of the man on the phone, the camera’s distracted. In a brilliant use of the split-diopter lens, the audience sees Woodward’s stunning revelation come at the same moment Nixon’s political opponent, George McGovern, announces he’s looking for a new running mate. The employees of the Post can’t take their eyes off the TV. No one is even thinking to look at Woodward, who’s just learned something that will end up changing the course of Nixon’s entire presidency.

And we still can’t get it right

The television changed the way that people consume news, so while it serves as the main punching bag throughout the movie, All the President’s Men remains relevant today because the media environment that cable news created still permeates our culture. Only now, the main culprit isn’t just the television, it’s the Internet, smartphones, and social media. One 2020 study from Pew Research Center indicates that more than eight in ten American adults indicate that they receive their news primarily through a smartphone, the same device with which you can play games, share photos, and regularly interact with family, friends, and memes. The television may no longer be the only purveyor of “news as entertainment,” but it created an environment in which ALL news is entertainment, and the flashiest stories get the most views. The algorithm isn’t made for thoughtful discussion or truth telling. It’s made, like television, to make us look at it longer. 

One might hope that things would have changed after 45 years. One might have hoped that when the Internet came on the scene with its instant access to information, we would have gotten over the “news as entertainment” trend so that the American public could become more informed and lead the way into a thoughtful era of politics and culture. But sadly, little has changed, and for that reason, it’s sometimes difficult for me to watch All the President’s Men. It’s difficult to watch the final scene of the film, where a large television screen of Nixon’s second inauguration almost obscures the two journalists in the back, hammering away at their typewriters so that the truth could come out. It’s difficult to think about how that struggle between truth and entertainment will always be there. But there is hope. As the movie closes, a typewriter spells out the immense ramifications of Woodward and Bernstein’s efforts. A scandal is exposed. A presidency is cut short. A truth is told. 

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