Watergate scandal stages a TV comeback amid the crisis facing Trump

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 break-in 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-year-old 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. 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 current 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 already shown up on the Amazon book sales chart where “All The President’s Men” has been climbing. 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 right-leaning 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 in the early stages of 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 looking for — 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.”

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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