35 years ago, five men were caught breaking into the Watergate Hotel. The burglary would give Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein the story of a lifetime, and help change the role of the press. Alicia Shepard, author of a new book on Watergate, discusses the fact & fiction of "Woodstein."
AMY EDDINGS: This is On the Media. I'm Amy Eddings. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, five men were caught breaking into the Democrat National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel office/apartment complex in Washington, D.C. Two young Washington Post reporters got on the story right away, but within a day found themselves scooped by the Associated Press, which reported the tantalizing detail that one of the arrested burglars, James McCord Jr., worked security for the Republican National Committee and the Committee to Reelect the President.
There were other stolen scoops along the way, but it was Woodward and Bernstein who would go on to claim the story as their own, solidifying their legend status with the book and movie, All the President's Men.
Alicia Shepard is the author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate. Having pored over the Watergate papers, notes, interviews and drafts sold by Woodward and Bernstein in 2003 to the University of Texas for 5 million dollars, she challenges the reporter's sole ownership of this chapter in American history. ALICIA SHEPARD: Well, certainly the role that Woodward and Bernstein played in the fall of 1972 is very important, but so were the journalists who wrote for The Washington Star, for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, CBS, but there's only so much that the press can do. They don't have the power to issue subpoenas or search warrants or hold grand juries or force people to testify, so the courts, the FBI and the Congress all played a key role in Nixon's resigning.
The Senate Watergate hearings alone were 237 hours, from May of 1973 through August. The public got a lot of information by watching those hearings. The reason that Woodward and Bernstein get so much credit is because in 1976, Robert Redford made a tremendous movie, All the President's Men, and that movie is still watched in journalism schools. It's still on TV. It's even used in high schools as a shortcut to teach about Watergate.
So there's no doubt that the movie has a lot to do with the myth of Woodward and Bernstein single-handedly bringing down a president. BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's a pretty good movie. I'll say that. And the story isn't far off of the truth. The story might have died on the vine had they not been so aggressive. ALICIA SHEPARD: It's certainly possible. Events don't happen in a vacuum. And Judge Sirica, who was the Watergate judge for the five burglars, was reading The Post stories every morning and did say that he was influenced by them.
So everything plays a part. But what I see today, and I saw throughout the research on my book, was this blanket statement - Woodward and Bernstein, the pair who brought down a president. And I think it's more accurate to say they played a role in bringing down a president. When they are given sole credit, it sort of wipes out everything else that happened. BOB GARFIELD: You have a document, which kind of supports that argument, from a fairly surprising source. ALICIA SHEPARD: Yes. This is a letter that Katharine Graham, who was the publisher at The Post during Watergate, wrote to Woodward and Bernstein in the summer of 1974, after Nixon had resigned. And she wanted to write them a thank-you letter, but in it she also said, quote, "I concede all the blessings we must all concede - incredible amounts of luck, sources willing and even finally a few eager to talk and help. I concede the role of the courts, grand juries and Congressional committees. We didn't bring him down. Those institutions and holders of office did, as we all keep reporting." And she underlined the word "we" and "him." BOB GARFIELD: Do you think she was already bristling at the evolving legend of Woodward and Bernstein? ALICIA SHEPARD: No, I don't, because she ends the letter saying, quote, "But it was still an extraordinary, gutsy, hard, brilliant piece of journalism. I want to say this to you both despite the accompanying crap that has fallen all over us, and especially you." BOB GARFIELD: Watergate was a sort of perfect storm. You had this arrogant, even criminal president; you had a very feisty newspaper editor in Ben Bradley and a Democratic Congress that was more than happy to investigate the White House. And all thrown together, it created this remarkable journalistic drama. I wonder if there could ever be another Watergate. ALICIA SHEPARD: I really don't think so. We have events that surface, like the warrantless wiretapping that I thought might have erupted into a Watergate, but it's important to think of the context of what the media world was like in 1972 when there were only three network channels, cable didn't exist and newspapers were much more dominant.
And today it's just so hard for any story to sort of rise to the surface. It just seems like news breaks and it gets diluted and it gets forgotten about. BOB GARFIELD: Alicia, thank you very much. ALICIA SHEPARD: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Alicia Shepard teaches journalism at American University and is author of Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.