Net­works rush to air spe­cials on the ’70s po­lit­i­cal scan­dal, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on re­newed in­ter­est in the saga amid com­par­isons to Trump’s cri­sis

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Stephen Battaglio

View­ers of cable news net­work MSNBC fre­quently see host Chris Hayes in a pro­mo­tional spot where he stands out­side the Water­gate com­plex in Wash­ing­ton, the site of the 1972 Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters breakin that led to the un­do­ing of the Nixon pres­i­dency.

“Water­gate — you know its name be­cause of re­porters who never stopped ask­ing ques­tions,” he in­tones over images of the struc­ture’s fa­mil­iar ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails made omi­nous by his­tory. “Now, who knows where the ques­tions will take us.”

Hayes wasn’t even born when the cor­rup­tion un­cov­ered by Wash­ing­ton Post re­porters Bob Wood­ward and Carl Bern­stein led to the res­ig­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Nixon in 1974. But each day of re­port­ing on the pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Rus­sia and Pres­i­dent Trump’s cam­paign draws TV news com­par­isons to the 45-yearold Water­gate saga, which has re­turned to the cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion.

Such terms as spe­cial coun­sel, ex­ec­u­tive priv­i­lege and im­peach­ment have

seeped back into the po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con in a big way. Last Thurs­day’s tes­ti­mony of fired FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey be­fore a Se­nate com­mit­tee drew nearly 20 mil­lion view­ers — a mas­sive au­di­ence for day­time TV — much like the Water­gate hear­ings did in 1973 when daily cov­er­age ro­tated be­tween ABC, CBS and NBC.

Re­newed in­ter­est in the great­est po­lit­i­cal scan­dal in Amer­i­can his­tory is al­ready spurring a rush in the TV busi­ness to re­visit the era. Water­gate gives net­works a fa­mil­iar ti­tle to help draw big rat­ings as well as bur­nish their news lega­cies at a time when their le­git­i­macy has been chal­lenged by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Both ABC News and MSNBC have prime-time spe­cials on Water­gate air­ing this week­end to co­in­cide with the an­niver­sary of the break-in of Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters at the com­plex.

ABC’s spe­cial air­ing Fri­day is part of its “Truth and Lies” true crimes se­ries pro­duced by its news­magazine “20/20.” Water­gate may seem like a stretch for a genre that has drawn big au­di­ences with looks back at such no­to­ri­ous cases as the Me­nen­dez broth­ers and Charles Man­son. But “20/20” Ex­ec­u­tive Pro­ducer David Sloan said the topic had been on its list since the se­ries was mapped out in Jan­uary.

“We didn’t want ‘Truth and Lies’ just to be dark crimes,” Sloan said. “We looked at the cal­en­dar and at an­niver­saries. It be­came more and more cur­rent.”

“Truth and Lies” makes no men­tion of the cri­sis fac­ing Trump’s White House. But Sloan noted, “You can’t watch it with­out think­ing about it,” es­pe­cially when it shows vin­tage footage of Bar­bara Wal­ters ask­ing Nixon if he wished he had burned the Oval Of­fice tapes that ended his pres­i­dency.

A+E Stu­dios is at work on a mul­ti­part Water­gate se­ries from Charles Fer­gu­son, the di­rec­tor of “In­side Job,” the 2010 Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tary on the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. Although the un­ti­tled project is sched­uled to air on the His­tory cable net­work in 2018, the premiere could be moved up if it’s com­pleted sooner.

“If we were ma­gi­cians we would prob­a­bly wave a wand and have it ready now,” said Molly Thomp­son, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of A+E IndieFilms and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the up­com­ing doc­u­men­tary. “We ac­tu­ally gave it the green light back when every­body thought Hil­lary Clin­ton was go­ing to be pres­i­dent. But I have to think that with ev­ery day that goes by, it will pos­si­bly be­come more rel­e­vant.”

View­ers may even see new drama­ti­za­tions of the books Wood­ward and Bern­stein wrote about their Water­gate re­port­ing and its af­ter­math. Bern­stein, now a con­trib­u­tor to CNN, con­firmed to the Los An­ge­les Times that the team has heard from pro­duc­ers in­ter­ested in mak­ing new TV or film ver­sions of “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men” and se­quel “The Fi­nal Days,” which re­counts the machi­na­tions in­side the White House be­fore Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion.

The 1976 Warner Bros. fea­ture film adap­ta­tion of “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men,” star­ring Dustin Hoff­man and Robert Red­ford, won four Os­cars. “The Fi­nal Days” was pro­duced as a three-hour TV movie for ABC in 1989. Wood­ward and Bern­stein have re­tained the rights to both books.

The in­creased ap­petite for the Water­gate story has shown up on the Ama­zon book sales chart where “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men” has been ris­ing. Si­mon & Schus­ter re­cently or­dered a new 10,000-copy press run of the ti­tle, first pub­lished in 1974.

Bern­stein be­lieves Water­gate’s rel­e­vance is on the rise be­cause it’s “a great ex­am­ple of the Amer­i­can sys­tem work­ing.” There is a long­ing for a time when not only the press did its job, he said, but the ju­di­ciary, in­clud­ing a Supreme Court with a chief jus­tice ap­pointed by Nixon, and a bi­par­ti­san Se­nate com­mit­tee all worked to seek the truth based on the in­for­ma­tion re­ported.

“The real he­roes in many ways were these great coura­geous pa­tri­otic Repub­li­cans who cast their votes based on con­science,” Bern­stein said. “But we have a very dif­fer­ent coun­try and a cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal di­vide that is vi­cious and in which it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to have a fact-based de­bate. The no­tion of the best ob­tain­able ver­sion of the truth, which is what we did in the re­port­ing at the Wash­ing­ton Post, is un­der­mined and den­i­grated and de­meaned by the pres­i­dent of the United States as fake news.”

Like the pos­si­ble Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence with the 2016 elec­tion, Water­gate was about the un­der­min­ing of a free elec­tion process. The Nixon cam­paign’s ac­tiv­i­ties in 1972 were aimed at get­ting the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent his weak­est pos­si­ble Demo­cratic op­po­nent in Ge­orge McGovern.

Jour­nal­ists who have seen their cov­er­age on the ties be­tween Rus­sia and Trump’s cam­paign at­tacked by a hos­tile White House and de­meaned by con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tors on rightlean­ing me­dia such as Fox News have been look­ing to Wood­ward and Bern­stein for in­spi­ra­tion and sup­port.

The duo — who faced sim­i­lar de­ri­sion and even in­tim­i­da­tion from the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion dur­ing their Water­gate re­port­ing — were hon­ored at the White House Cor­re­spon­dents Assn. din­ner in April, which Trump re­fused to at­tend.

“I’d say this ques­tion of ‘what is news’ be­comes even more rel­e­vant and essen­tial if we are cov­er­ing the pres­i­dent of the United States,” Bern­stein told the crowd. “Richard Nixon tried to make the con­duct of the press the is­sue in Water­gate, in­stead of the con­duct of the pres­i­dent and his men. We tried to avoid the noise and let the re­port­ing speak.”

MSNBC aimed to raise that point in its pro­mo­tional spot with Hayes, which was filmed in Fe­bru­ary, two months be­fore the Trump-Rus­sia story started to es­ca­late and Water­gate-re­lated guests started show­ing up reg­u­larly on the net­work, which has seen its rat­ings surge.

“We wanted to po­si­tion Chris as a re­porter and com­mu­ni­cate that through dogged jour­nal­ism and re­lent­lessly ask­ing ques­tions — you want to un­earth the truth,” said Aaron Taylor, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer for NBC News and MSNBC. “Water­gate, the po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­is­tic mile­stone that it was in our his­tory, just pre­sented it­self as a great point to push off from. We felt that it was some­what pre­scient the way the [Trump-Rus­sia] story has de­vel­oped.”

MSNBC will fo­cus on Water­gate re­port­ing in its spe­cial called “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men Re­vis­ited,” which uses clips from the fea­ture film.

Larry Sa­bato, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia Cen­ter for Pol­i­tics, agrees that Water­gate evokes “the apex of jour­nal­is­tic power — they brought down a pres­i­dent and it was not just Wood­ward and Bern­stein.”

But Trump de­trac­tors look­ing for a sim­i­lar end­ing to­day may be dis­ap­pointed.

“In 1974, there was a path to re­solv­ing the cri­sis,” Sa­bato said. “The chances of a Repub­li­can house im­peach­ing Trump are next to zero. The chances of a Se­nate conviction with 52 Repub­li­cans and 67 votes needed is mi­nus 100.”

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hard­ball,” who has tried to steer clear of Water­gate analo­gies on his pro­gram, also as­serts that the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment is dif­fer­ent.

“I al­ways be­lieve that these things are at­mo­spheric,” he said. “Nixon was very un­pop­u­lar be­cause the econ­omy was in bad shape in 1973 and ‘74. The mood of the coun­try was down.”

But even if the his­toric par­al­lels are far from com­plete, Water­gate has what TV ex­ec­u­tives are seek­ing — a com­pelling yarn with a name that is rec­og­niz­able to view­ers.

“No­body had re­ally done it in a long time,” said Mike Stiller, vice pres­i­dent for de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion at His­tory, where the Fer­gu­son doc­u­men­tary se­ries will air. “It’s hard to re­mem­ber how en­ter­tain­ing and riv­et­ing all of the de­tails are. It plays like a po­lit­i­cal thriller, and it’s all true.”

‘Water­gate, the po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­is­tic mile­stone that it was in our his­tory, just pre­sented it­self as a great point to push off from.’ — Aaron Taylor, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer for NBC News and MSNBC

As­so­ci­ated Press

SE­NATE Water­gate In­ves­ti­gat­ing Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Sam Ervin, cen­ter, lis­tens to other com­mit­tee mem­bers dur­ing the first day of pub­lic hear­ings in Wash­ing­ton in 1973. Daily cov­er­age of the hear­ings ro­tated be­tween ABC, CBS and NBC that year.

An­drew Harnik As­so­ci­ated Press

EACH DAY of re­port­ing on the pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Rus­sia and Pres­i­dent Trump’s cam­paign draws news com­par­isons to the Water­gate saga. Above, Pres­i­dent Nixon in 1973 and Trump last week.

Ken Feil TWP

AT LEFT, DUSTIN HOFF­MAN and Robert Red­ford in the 1976 film “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men.” At right are the Wash­ing­ton Post re­porters they por­tray, Bob Wood­ward, left, and Carl Bern­stein in 1973.

Charles Tas­nadi As­so­ci­ated Press

As­so­ci­ated Press

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

AN AD for ABC’s Water­gate spe­cial air­ing Fri­day ap­pears out­side ABC stu­dios in Times Square in New York. The spe­cial is part of ABC’s “Truth and Lies” true crimes se­ries pro­duced by its news­magazine “20/20.”

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