Richard M. Nixon possessed both the policy expertise and political experience necessary to succeed as president of the United States. A background in college debate had assisted him in gaining a command of social and economic issues, and by the time he became chief executive, he had served as a U.S. representative, senator and vice president. Narrowly losing the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy, Nixon had returned to presidential politics in 1968 to defeat Hubert Humphrey, and followed that victory with a 1972 landslide win over George McGovern. But despite his successes, the 37th president never overcame his paranoia about the news reporters and political operatives who, he insisted, intended to deprive him of his most cherished possession: Power. He resigned from office in disgrace in 1974, in the aftermath of the cover-up of the Watergate break-in.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan captured some of Nixon's paranoia and obsession with power in a 2006 play, Frost/Nixon, which premiered in London before moving to Broadway in 2007. The play and subsequent film focused on a series of 1977 interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and the former president. Directed by Ron Howard, the 2008 film version of Frost/Nixon received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, with Frank Langella, who played Nixon, receiving a nomination for Best Actor. As a film-and thus as a form of entertainment- Frost/Nixon provided audiences with a compelling, mano-a-mano drama of how both Frost, played by Michael Sheen, and Nixon desperately needed the interviews to succeed. In Frost, Nixon saw a lightweight who had provided a perfect forum for Nixon to explain himself to the American people, while Frost viewed Nixon as the source of a broadcast second-wind, helping Frost to be taken more seriously in his profession. In short, Frost the financially strapped entertainer sought to become Frost the accomplished journalist, while Nixon the disgraced public official sought to become Nixon the elder statesman.
Like most films based on historical events, "artistic license" helped to create drama and suspense in Frost/Nixon. As one would expect, much of the film centers on the interviews and the stresses the interviews caused for the parties involved. As one also might anticipate, the story builds to a final exchange about Watergate, with questions and admissions surrounding the break-in determining the ultimate "victor." The Nixon character tells Frost during an alcohol-fueled telephone conversation that only one of the two men can prevail, and as drama goes, the film offers a sense of closure when one man does. Frost/Nixon concludes with a sullen Nixon looking out over the Pacific Ocean from his home in San Clemente, California and Frost presumably joining the ranks of "serious" journalists upon his return to Great Britain.
But the alcohol-fueled telephone conversation never took place, and the journalists who formed the White House press corps certainly did not ensure that abuses of executive power would never again be tolerated. Indeed, from the standpoint of media ethics, Frost/Nixon raises concerns not only about the melding of historical facts with artistic fictions, but also about the portrayal of political journalists as intrepid "watch dogs" and reporters of corruption, as opposed to what Donohue, Tichenor and Olien (1995) called "guard dogs" for established institutions.
Writing in the National Review, Schwarz (2008) characterized Frost/Nixon as "self-congratulatory revisionism," contending that the original interviews had not been journalistically momentous, and in fact had resulted in little more than a $600,000 paycheck for the former president. New Yorker film critic David Denby (2008) and Nixon biographer Jonathan Aitken (2009) appeared to agree, the latter noting that Nixon had revealed very little during the interviews, having sold his rehearsed comments to the highest bidder. "Nixon gave no ground on Watergate," Aitken argued, "nor did he come anywhere near offering an apology for it" (p. 50). Additionally, Aitken maintained, while the film portrayed Nixon as the loser of a showdown, or duel, the former president actually may have benefitted more from the interviews than Frost did: "[Nixon] moved back to New York, wrote nine best-selling books, became well respected as a sage of foreign policy, returned to the White House to advise Presidents Reagan and George Bush Snr., was a broadcaster and writer on national security issues, and addressed influential audiences across the world before his death in 1994" (p. 50).
In the months preceding the 1977 interviews, James Reston Jr. had served as Watergate researcher for David Frost, and in January 2009, writing in Smithsonian, Reston expressed concern about the "artistic license" taken by playwright Peter Morgan in Frost/Nixon. Reston suggested that basic facts and chronologies need not have been altered in the interest of dramatization-that artistic representations, in general, should focus on emotion while remaining true to history. Still, for his part, Morgan (2008) wrote in Newsweek that "The Frost/Nixon interviews had the largest audience of any TV news interviews in history and delivered a lasting blow to Richard Nixon and his legacy. They also delivered a qualified catharsis for the American people who watched. An extraordinary achievement. In the process, they also made Frost and Nixon rich" (p. 62). While the televised conversations did yield impressive dividends for the interviewer and interviewee, the social influence Morgan described in that passage appears quite different from the recollections of those audience members and political staffers who experienced the original interviews. As indicated, those critical of the film did not consider the real-life interviews a momentous event in journalism, and their concerns about historical accuracy appear well-placed. A previous MEDIA ETHICS commentary (Denham, 2006) cited experimental research demonstrating that individuals acquire information from fictitious representations and apply that information to their everyday lives (see Marsh, Meade & Roediger, 2003). Dramatic images in film stand to resonate with audience members, and it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to separate fact from fiction given the amount of information appearing in a single media text (i.e., one film).
Regarding the macro-level concern about journalists serving more as "guard dogs" than "watch dogs," media historians and scholars of political communication generallagree that while journalists in a democracy are expected to shed light on government and help to educate an engaged citizenry, such that citizens- or members of the electorate- can stay abreast of issues confronting them, journalists in the American democracy rarely meet that expectation. Seeking to maximize profit, executives at international news conglomerates expect journalists to file stories that capture the attention of a politically disengaged public (see Alterman, 2003; Bennett, 2005; McChesney, 2004). Dramatic stories steeped in personalization help to engage audience members, thus enhancing profits, and news organizations also conserve funds by utilizing "information subsidies," which Gandy (1982) defined as pieces of information that cost less than that which users would incur in their absence. Traditional news releases distributed by public-relations practitioners constitute one type of information subsidy, as the materials do not (necessarily) require independent reporting or, in business terms, the expenditure of organizational resources.
H. R. Haldeman, chief of staff in the Nixon White House, spent 20 years in advertising and public communications with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Along with Nixon staff members Herb Klein and Ron Ziegler, Haldeman understood persuasion and the professional needs of working journalists. Accordingly, Haldeman, Ziegler, Klein and other Nixon staffers met each evening to package information that would be released to reporters the following morning. Much of the time, this information-which White House personnel termed "the line"- appeared on the evening news (see Haldeman, 1994). In fact, while journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would ultimately help to bring down the president and his executive aides, the Nixon administration's communication tactics- packaging news items for reporters, arranging for the president to speak directly to the American people about certain issues, thus bypassing journalistic gatekeepers-influenced the media strategies of future administrations. In the Reagan years, for example, aides circulated "the line of the day" each morning at approximately 9:00 (Hertsgaard, 1988) and extended the Nixon approach by "courting" Washington journalists with first-class reporting areas and invitations to presidential galas.
Moving to the 21st century, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, White House reporters became especially deferential, failing to ask pointed questions about the invasion of Iraq. In his 2007 documentary Buying the War, Bill Moyers addressed this deference, explaining how scrutiny and fact-checking had lost out to nationalism and the fear of alienating advertisers. Indeed, after viewing the Moyers documentary, one can appreciate why media critics sometimes become aggravated when films "inspired by historic events" effectively create "fiction from fact" (Sanello, 2003).
After the release of Frost/Nixon in December 2008, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr. (2008) commented on whether journalists in the new millennium could conduct an investigation as historically momentous as the one surrounding Watergate. While Downie said he believed such an investigation could occur, he shared the concerns of others who have written about the speed with which information now becomes communicated to mass audiences (see Auletta, 2010)- and how the pressure to be the first to present that information often results in poor journalism. Downie posed an important question for those who study mass communication: "In today's cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified?" (p. B1).
As Downie indicated, technological advances and increases in competition among political reporters (including those in the blogosphere) have led news companies to relax their sourcing standards, often at their peril. In their Watergate reporting, Woodward and Bernstein discovered the kind of information young reporters dreamed of uncovering, and part of their journalistic success stemmed from independent corroboration. Throughout the investigation, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, along with executive editor Downie, required verification of information supplied by anonymous sources, given the propensity of veiled sources to use the press for partisan political attacks and the floating of self-serving trial balloons. (But even the Washington Post had to return a Pulitzer Prize in disgrace when reporter Janet Cooke fabricated a series about a child drug addict in "Jimmy's World." At best, Jimmy was a composite, not unlike characters invented more recently by Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Stephen Glass at the New Republic.) In the age of Twitter and other social media, scooping the competition has become increasingly important yet increasingly difficult, and time spent corroborating allegations detracts from the speed at which a report can be published. Consequently, as traditional news organizations struggle to survive, single-source, anonymous contentions may only increase in the years ahead.
In 1977, Richard Nixon agreed to a series of interviews with David Frost. Ostensibly, the former president sought to explain himself to the American people, although more cynical observers have argued that he actually sought little more than a $600,000 paycheck. Throughout his political career, Nixon had sought retribution against those in the "liberal media," who he suspected of attempting to humiliate him personally and professionally (see, for discussion, Bernstein & Woodward, 1974; Crouse, 1973; Gersh Hernandez, 1994; Porter, 1976; Spear, 1984). But in 1977, ironically, he would turn to one media personality in attempting to re-establish both a statesmanlike persona and a stable bank account.
As a dramatization, the 2008 film Frost/Nixon succeeded in shedding light on the agendas of the interviewer and interviewee and the pressures they faced. But unlike the manner in which the film concludes, Frost did not emerge as the clear "victor," and media personnel did not ensure that abuses of power would never again be tolerated. Profit motives keep news reports in line with the perceived expectations of advertisers and parent corporations, with reporters seeking to maintain positive relationships with news sources in powerful places. Political news reports, in general, tend to support establishment interests, with sources offering information that enforces the status quo, and it thus appears appropriate to end this article with an assertion from Alterman (2003): "Much of what the media reports about the White House, any White House, is little more than spoonfed public relations pabulum" (pp. 193-194).
References NOTE: Articles obtained from Lexis Nexis contained page numbers on which articles began, and those numbers are used for quoted material.
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Downie, Leonard, Jr. (2008, December 21). "Could we uncover Watergate today?" Washington Post, p. B1.
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Reston, James, Jr. (2009, January). "Frost, Nixon, and me." Smithsonian. Retrieved January 24, 2010 from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Presence-Frost-Nixon.html.
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