The Rob Fordpocalypse unfolding this week is a vindication for the forces of investigative journalism, a welcome throwback to the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when the news was granted unwavering trust. In the modern age of political polarization, Rupert Murdoch and Fox, every story is treated first with skepticism, with immediate questions about the legitimacy and bias of the source. Such questions aside, the problem is that it’s often the media’s job to say things about people that those people are not necessarily going to like, and those people are going to fight back with every resource they can muster. But before the Internet, if you disagreed with a reporter’s take on you, you had to attempt to return fire on their turf, and few could dent the veneer of infallibility possessed by Murrow and Cronkite et al. The notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy tumbled from grace largely due to Murrow’s relentless attacks on him. When instead those traditional media outlets find themselves on an equal playing field with every wag with a laptop and a WordPress account (not unaware of the irony am I), the old adage about refraining from picking a fight with folk who buy ink by the barrel no longer applies. A breaking news story is no longer the last word, it’s the start of an extended argument of attrition, as confirmation bias leads people to avoid reading what doesn’t reinforce their worldview and doubting with venom anything that challenges them. Rob Ford’s supporters don’t care that he has a drug problem or that he associates with characters under criminal investigation. He’s keeping taxes low! He’s fighting the gravy train! Na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you! They repeat the meme ad nauseum and haul reporters in front of the Press Council for being mean to their standard bearer. Hammered relentlessly, the press soldiers on, the truth their dim light in the fog, wondering if they’d be happier filing fluff about quilting bees.
Hmm. Where have we seen this movie before?
All the President’s Men (1976) is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of the kind of crack (pun intended) investigative journalism that led to this past week’s revelations – a gritty, non-glamorous depiction of the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they worked to piece together the scandal that began with the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate hotel and eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It is a thriller that eschews thriller conventions but remains gripping from start to finish simply because it is all true. The movie begins, appropriately, with the tremendously overamplified sound of typewriter keys striking blank paper – a metaphor for the rifle-like ability of a big news story to upend the world. And what follows would be unlikely to make it out of the scripting stages today – extended scenes of Woodward and Bernstein working the phones, probing reluctant sources with skilled questions, cracking under the pressure of editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) to bring him something he can publish. (One can imagine a modern studio executive demanding more car chases and perhaps inserting a plucky office assistant character with big boobs for the duo to leer at.) The dialogue is ripe with lasting tropes like “follow the money” and “non-denial denials,” terms that remain as applicable in 2013 as they did nearly 40 years ago. Indeed, the image of Toronto Star reporters sitting in a car with drug dealers to view the famous Ford video evokes Woodward in his parking garage waiting to meet up with Deep Throat.
After Gawker and the Star broke the Ford video story back in May, “Ford Nation,” like Nixon’s silent majority before it, went to work trying to discredit them, with comment boards flooded with enough vitriol to embarrass a Klan rally. The Star, like the Post before it, stood by its story, even as time wore on and the fabled video failed to materialize, leading even the most ardent Ford opponents to believe that perhaps there was no there there. (A common rumor suggested that Ford’s people had acquired and managed to destroy it.) All the President’s Men winds to a conclusion as Woodward and Bernstein “shoot too high and miss” – implicating Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman in the Watergate coverup without solid proof and perhaps fatally jeopardizing the reputation of their newspaper. They are ultimately able to correct their mistake, but not before a dressing down on Bradlee’s front lawn in the middle of the night, where the cynical old newsman remarks, “Have you seen the latest poll? Half the country never even heard of Watergate. Nobody gives a shit.” Forum Research released a poll indicating that since Toronto Police Chief Blair’s fateful announcement, Ford’s popularity had risen five points.
There is no future, only the past happening over and over again.
Woodward and Bernstein get back to work, typewriters hammering away over the sound of Nixon triumphant in his re-election, before a series of teletype headlines reveal the fate of the major players, with one Nixon confederate after another sentenced to prison or forced to step aside before the big dog is finally brought down. Mayor Ford’s mea culpa of yesterday, offered with a determination to stay in office in the face of every major Canadian daily calling for his resignation, can be seen as a calculated move designed to wait out a fickle public whose attention span is only as long as it takes to click over to a story about Miley Cyrus and sideboob. But we’re seeing the same story play out in a repetition of subconscious themes ingrained in our collective memories that would impress Joseph Campbell. And we know how it ends – or at least, how it’s supposed to end. The only difference is that Robert Redford is too old now to play Robyn Doolittle.