What All the President’s Men teaches us about the importance of a free student press

I vividly remember the first time I saw All the President’s Men, the 1976 classic film about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their relentless pursuit of the truth.  That truth, as we know, was the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, and led to the Pulitzer for Public Service for the Post.

Why didn’t I actually see the movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford until its 10th anniversary?  At the time, I chalked it up to youthful preoccupation with rom-coms and movies like Ghostbusters that didn’t require too much brain power.

But the thing is, I thought I knew the story.  My dad was a journalist, and I was intimate with the sights, sounds and smells of a newsroom.  I lived through the Watergate hearings.  My parents watched seemingly every moment of them on our only television set in the house, along with every newscast related to it.  I was nine years old, and much to my dismay, there was a decided dearth of Star Trek re-runs in my living room in 1973 during those hearings.  I watched Richard Nixon’s resignation live in 1974.  I’d heard my parents speak in what seemed like reverent tones about Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee and Jaworski.  So, nothing I’d heard about All the President’s Men sounded especially sexy to me.  It all seemed like I’d lived it, so…I was just a lot more inclined to pay money for The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But finally, in 1986, I gathered with some friends and went to an anniversary screening of the Oscar-winning drama.

I was riveted. The light sabers the heroes wielded looked like telephones and reporters’ notebooks.  The reporters’ hunt for the truth was as time consuming and frustrating as it was tense.  And the question of who controlled that truth seemed as important as Indiana Jones’s quest for the Ark of the Covenant.

Dustin Hoffman (left) and Robert Redford (right) played Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” which told the story of the Watergate scandal.

A few years later, I found myself advising a student newspaper. In 1990, we still did manual paste-up, complete with a waxer and oversized design tables.  My student staff members were paid in pizza and assurances that this was great pre-professional training for the hours they spent creating a weekly newspaper. There were no scholarships or paychecks. Production nights often lasted until 3 or 4 AM for most of us, and because we published mid-week, all of us had class in the morning.  My student journalists did the work because it mattered to them and to the community they served.

Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, my students never brought down an executive branch administration.  But they investigated racist policies and practices in downtown businesses.  They tracked down stolen newspapers and relentlessly pursued those who sought to silence their work.  They asked hard questions about the motivations that led to cutting down trees that were at the heart of a biologist’s research. They questioned every tuition increase.  They debated the ethics of printing names of their peers who were both the victims and perpetrators of crimes.  They sought out local, state, and national sources on vital community issues like gun violence, mental health, immigration, higher education debt, national security, voting, and  LGBTQ equality issues to name just a few.  They told poignant human stories about students and faculty who overcame enormous odds.  Some beat cancer (and some tragically didn’t).  Others worked full-time, raised children and still managed to walk across the stage in May with a degree.  My student journalists have offered audiences insight into what it is to pursue college with a physical challenge like blindness.  They explored what students with autism face in the classroom and outside.  Photojournalism students have risked their physical safety for just the right angle or level of intimacy to communicate the visual story.  Sports broadcasters have dedicated countless hours of research and prep just to expertly call play-by-play and color for a double-header.

As I write this column, I have a student working tirelessly in the computer lab next to my office, meticulously weaving the many sources he’s gathered into a complex long-form audio story on an athlete’s journey to recover from a major knee injury. It’s his first major journalism project, and his excitement and terror are palpable.

All of the above merely scratches the surface of the service my student journalists have rendered their communities.  Their work, like that of those long-heralded Post journalists, is driven by a passion to learn the truth and share it with others.  It’s driven by curiosity and also a sense of duty—if they don’t do it, who will?  Like Woodward and Bernstein, my students have faced down enormous pressure from people in power who didn’t want information shared publicly.  They have lost friends and won the praise of strangers for their tenacity.

The Force is indeed strong in these young journalists.  And that’s why a free student press is so important for our communities.  The truths student journalists uncover and share are every bit as important to our democratic ideals as those Woodward learned from Deep Throat.  We have a responsibility to uphold student press freedom however we can: advocating for access, arming student journalists with the right tools to do the work, listening when they need an ear, and educating the broader community on the role of the press.

Perhaps the best coaching advice to young journalists on Student Press Freedom Day is found in editor Ben Bradlee’s challenge to “Woodstein” as things in the investigation are heating up toward the end of the movie. “You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up…15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitutionfreedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”

Who needs a light saber?

Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., is professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. Frantz is Executive Director of the Society for Collegiate Journalists and a passionate advocate of the First Amendment.