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.

Recognizing our guardians of truth

If popular American culture tells us anything, heroes more often than not wear disguises and have super powers that protect us all from easily identifiable bad guys and mad scientists. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and even the hapless Guardians of the Galaxy, are all endowed with money, strength, god-like qualities, starships and other tools that generally guarantee that if the nemesis isn’t completely squashed, it’s at least compromised, giving hope for that next blockbuster sequel. Even Merriam-Webster’s definition begins with the idea that heroes are “mythological.”

But we’re journalists; let’s focus on reality. 

In fact, heroes are all around us, but they don’t wear capes. More often than not, they do go armed, but not with starships, invisible planes or laser guns. The battlement for the heroes to whom I refer here usually consists of cameras, field recorders, laptops, and…most important, tenacity and courage.

Clearly, I’m referring to the guardians of truth on our campuses—student journalists.

“These are some of the cases that have made headlines.  Many don’t.  I worry about those we don’t hear from, those who are trying to pursue truth, but are for myriad reasons bullied to silence.”

This has been a banner year for attempts to censor student journalists across the nation. Efforts to shut down high school presses can be found in censorship, prior review, and threats to the advisor at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, and prior restraint at Plainfield High School in Indiana. But challenges don’t stop at the secondary school levels, as is evident at the University of North Alabama’s censorship-through- firing at the Flor-Ala  student newspaper, or hundreds of stolen newspapers at Colgate University. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg and reveal consistent efforts to silence pesky student journalists seeking the truth. In fact, these are some of the cases that have made headlines. Many don’t. I worry about those we don’t hear from, those who are trying to pursue truth, but are for myriad reasons bullied to silence.

Time Magazine announced its annual Person-of-the-Year pick this week, choosing journalists who serve as the “guardians” of truth in the face of historic efforts to quell it by despotic world leaders. Karl Vick’s cover story highlights journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s murder apparently by the order of the Saudi crown, two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar for “illegally” reporting on the murder of ten Muslim men, and the remaining staff of reporters and editors at Capital Gazette, who resolutely “put out the damned paper” following the slaughter of their co-workers. These are just a few of the powerful narratives Time offers of journalists who have stood up, even at grave risk to their own lives or freedom, to deliver the truth to their communities.

In keeping with those amazing guardians highlighted by Vick’s powerful essay, it is important to recognize those student journalists who are standing up and putting out the news, even when doing so is costly. They know that by doing so, they offer their campuses access to what’s relevant and vital to their day-to-day experience. Without an unfettered press, community members run the risk of purposefully limited versions of reality designed and molded by those who seek to benefit from less light shed on the subject. They are indeed heroes—the real kind.

“The fight is hard and seemingly all around us right now, so as a national honor society for student media leaders, we have a responsibility to share our stories, listen to each other, offer support.”

But it is equally important that we champion a free press for all students, even those who aren’t making headlines by metaphorically holding their ground against the rolling the tanks. The fight is hard and seemingly all around us right now, so as a national honor society for student media leaders, we have a responsibility to share our stories, listen to each other, offer support. That is, of course, how Marvel built its universe, by bringing the likes of Iron Man, Wolverine, and Spiderman together, recognizing there is strength in numbers and shared purpose.

We have initiatives aimed at building just such a coalition of strength among the nation’s student press corps. The Society for Collegiate Journalists’ mission says, in part, “SCJ focuses on pre-professional development at the collegiate level. SCJ aims to advance ethical, innovative collegiate journalism nationally and to create a strong network of advocates for First Amendment education.”  To that end, SCJ encourages chapters to plan and host an event on campus designed to raise awareness and educate about the First Amendment and journalism, and even offers a small grant to help support that effort.

It’s my hope that in 2019 all of our chapters share stories of the heroes in your newsrooms, students who are on the front lines championing truth and also working to educate others about the importance of journalism. If you send us your stories of #JournalismHeroes, we’ll share them on the website and tweet them out.

Thank you all for your hard work and dedication to truth. I can hardly wait to see what our chapters do in 2019.

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.

RMU chapter inducts 18 new members, hosts 1A event

The Robert Morris University chapter inducted 18 new members yesterday, October 2, at its annual SCJ induction ceremony. COMM department chair Dr. Anthony Moretti offered remarks at the ceremony attended by students, faculty, family, and friends.

Sixteen of the 18 new inductees, plus SCJ chapter adviser Carrie Moniot, stand behind the chapter’s four officers, seated L-R: Secretary Malyk Johnson, VP Morgan Torchia, Treasurer Tori Flick and President Sam Anthony.

Earlier in the day, the chapter also hosted its first-ever First Amendment event, titled “Is the First Amendment Under Fire in Pittsburgh?”

Guest speakers included former Pittsburgh Post Gazette political cartoonist Rob Rogers (via Skype); free speech activist Joan Bauer; former Pittsburgh City Paper Editor Charlie Deitch; and Napier University (Edinburgh) literature professor Alistair McCleery.

Kudos to our RMU chapter on its induction ceremony and 1A event. And a hearty welcome to the 18 newly inducted members of our SCJ family!

Don’t forget! Please send along photos of your awards ceremonies so we can share your good news with the rest of our SCJ family. Email pictures and information to scjnationaloffice@gmail.com.

Journalists: Champions, not enemies, of the people

The National Council of the Society for Collegiate Journalists, led by President Andrea Frantz, Ph.D., is glad to join the Boston Globe and the hundreds of other news organizations issuing a reminder today about the value of a free press in America.

How did we go from widely recognizing journalist Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted man in America” in 1967, to vilifying the entire field of journalism as “the enemy of the people” in 2017?

To fully answer that question would require a deep, book-length dive into cultural, political, economic, and technological change in the United States over those 50 years.

But the short answer to the question is that we didn’t.  President Donald Trump did.

So perhaps the better question, at least for this editorial, is not how did we get here, but why?

Journalists have long served as essential to the checks and balances necessary for American democracy.  Where would we be without those who tirelessly ask questions of process and policy, and who all-too frequently put themselves in harm’s way in order for Americans to see and hear historic moments that inevitably impact our daily lives?  Put another way, without journalists, could we trust elected officials to provide us with the unvarnished truth behind their motivations and votes?

James Madison knew the answer to that last question was an unequivocal, ‘no,’ which is why, when he penned the First Amendment, the press became the only profession named in the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers all recognized that without a free press, democracy would fail.

But with that stroke of a pen, journalists simultaneously donned a mantel of responsibility that would not always make it popular with the people, and most assuredly not with politicians.  As watchdog, the American press has a duty to ferret out truth, even when truth is ugly.  And when truth is ugly—as it so often has been in our history—elected officials naturally fear for their own job security, and in some cases, legacy.  As evidence of this fraught relationship, we need only look at Thomas Jefferson’s shift from champion of a free press to detractor after his presidential campaign produced less than flattering reports. “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers,” he famously opined.

So, yes.  The love-hate relationship between press and politics is real.  When press does not play the role of public relations promoter—indeed, as it never should—those who want only the rose-colored view of reality will be uncomfortable.  And with discomfort comes occasional anger.  We get it.  And we can take it.

But even President Richard Nixon, whose corrupt administration was ousted by investigative journalism, recognized journalists for their contributions to American democracy.  Of the 29 journalists to receive the nation’s highest honor for civil service, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, ten of them were awarded by Nixon.  The award recognizes, “meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”  And one would be hard-pressed to find a stronger statement of the level of public service journalists give to the United States than the Journalists Memorial wall at the Newseum that commemorates over 2,000 journalists who lost their lives reporting the news. Hm.  ‘Enemy of the people,’ you say?

President Trump’s name-calling and Twitter-rants may well have successfully coined the term “fake news,” but the fact is, students don’t seem to be buying his vilification of the media campaign.  According to an article by Adam Harris in The Atlantic earlier this month, students across the nation are indicating a renewed interest in journalism.  Top j-schools such as Columbia, USC Annenberg, and Northwestern, among others, are seeing a hopeful uptick in applications.

Additionally, though administrators have actively sought to censor some, we’re also seeing high school student journalists taking important steps to report on critical (read: uncomfortable) social and political issues. And student journalists aren’t taking the censorship attempts lying down. After students pushed back and public scrutiny escalated, a Texas high school principal reversed his prior review rule for Prosper High School’s newspaper, Eagle Nation Online earlier this month.  In another example, according to a recent Student Press Law Center article, Grace Marion, a 2018 graduate of Neshaminy High School in Pennsylvania, even went so far as to boycott her own graduation ceremony in protest over administrative censorship of school’s newspaper, The Playwickian, while she was editor-in-chief.

There are countless examples of this sort of leadership among those who will be the future of this nation’s press, despite the barrage of insults emanating from the White House. Such perseverance is setting an example for all of us.

Student journalists should double down in their efforts to make a difference in their communities with hard-hitting, ethical, watchdog journalism.  The Society of Collegiate Journalists tips its hat to the pros and soon-to-be-pros for tenacity and important contributions to a stronger democracy. As Walter Cronkite once said, “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.”  Journalists are, in fact, champions—not enemies—of the people.

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

SCJ joins RTDNA in call for members to join campaign defending press freedom

SCJ stands in solidarity with the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) in its call for all news outlets to take an editorial stance against the systematic vilification of the American press.

According to the RTDNA website, the organization’s director, Dan Shelley, said, “We urge our members to join the effort on Thursday, August 16 by dedicating airtime, publishing an online editorial or sharing information via social media platforms that speaks to your viewers and listeners about the role we play in preserving the public’s right and need to know, in a government for and by the people.”

The nation’s student press plays an essential role in educating communities, and especially young readers and viewers, about the role journalists play in American democracy.  SCJ encourages all student press outlets to consider offering social media messages and editorial statements that deepen their respective communities’ understanding of the First Amendment and importance of a free press.

For more on this campaign, please see the RTDNA call.

Tag us in any social media posts or editorial statements your media organizations or chapters make using the hashtags #SCJsupports1A and #PressBack.

President’s Post: SCJ taking a bite of the Big Apple

Students from across the country will again converge on the media capital of the world, New York City, March 11-14 to participate in the College Media Association convention.

In addition to all of the traditional perks of attending CMA in New York (i.e., the best media tours on the planet; the New York CMA Photo Shoot Out; and, of course, Nuts 4 Nuts on nearly every street corner), we hope that all of our SCJ members will participate in several SCJ-sponsored events.

First, SCJ’s national office will be sponsoring the advisers’ lounge and doing a meet and greet on Thursday, March 12. We’ll announce our location via a flyer in everyone’s registration bag, and hope you’ll consider dropping in, partaking of some refreshments and meeting some of the Executive Council members.

We’re also excited that SCJ will offer several fun, interactive sessions at the conference. Student Press Law Center’s Executive Director, Frank LoMonte, and the Newseum Institute’s Chief Operating Officer, Gene Policinski will team up in a rapid-fire session that explores the top 10 First Amendment challenges facing student media today. This session will be followed by a fast and furious First Amendment Trivia showdown led by myself and joined by the aforementioned First Amendment dynamic duo. This is a session you won’t want to miss because there will be some fun 1A swag to be won.

Ever wonder why judges for media contests make the decisions they do? SCJ Vice President Lindsey Wotanis will lead a session #Winning: Why Contests Matter that addresses that question and more. Previous and current SCJ national contest and Pacemaker judges will take on the challenge of judging student work in the moment during this session to offer students some insights into the qualities that make an entry rise to the top.

Be looking for these opportunities and more to enhance your CMA New York experience in March. See you in the Big Apple!

1499499_714671640617_1379616982_nAndrea Frantz, Ph.D. is associate professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. She was installed as SCJ President at the 2014 Biennial. She’s an advocate of student journalists and the First Amendment. She’ll be blogging periodically about SCJ and other news.

President’s Post: Why unpopular speech needs our protection

je_suis_charlie_fist_and_pencilFair warning: this blog post is likely to offend. I’m about to advocate for those who make it their business to piss people off.

As I write this, French police are on the brink of apprehending the terrorists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and killed 12 staff members there on January 7.

The presumed motive for the bloodshed? Most agree that the killers were offended by the messages communicated in editorial cartoons published in the magazine, though specifics should become clearer when the killers are brought to justice.

Yes. The magazine’s editorial cartoons—indeed much of its editorial content—had the potential to offend. But that is the very nature of political and social satire. It’s the rhetorical risk takers—the folks who stick their necks out and say publicly what others will only say behind closed doors—who are among the leaders in fostering free and open public discussion about the difficult issues of the day. Charlie Hebdo’s editors knew they were taking risks, but they took them knowingly and intentionally because to silence public conversation is to ensure that only the very few and powerful will have a voice in social and political issues. And silencing of any kind is simply not acceptable. They understood as Mark Twain once wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”

One of the most important modern defenses of unpopular speech can be found in the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988). Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority noted:

Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate…[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. — Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988)

Provocative messages are not hard to locate in international media coverage; Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were neither the first to outrage, nor the most vitriolic. One needs only to look to Westboro Baptist Church funeral shenanigans to find equally repugnant public messages designed to insight outrage.

Yes. We are obligated to raise important ethical concerns that ask: ‘just because we can, does it mean we should?’ Is offense for the sake of offense instructive or socially valuable? Is speech that lampoons or belittles a specific group of people based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or religious preference hate speech? I don’t plan to answer these questions here. They’re tough ones and worthy of debate. But here’s the thing: debate is precisely what Charlie Hebdo and others advocate by challenging the status quo. We all have a choice as to whether we engage in the verbal sparring that political satire seeks to inspire. That choice happens when messages are made available. Conversely, choice disappears when silence is imposed.

What does a terrorist attack in France have to do with American student journalists?


Challenges to free speech happen all too frequently on college campuses across our nation and it is imperative student journalists know how to respond. For example, recently the University of Iowa’s administration chose to quickly remove from the campus a piece of public art in the form of a hooded Ku Klux Klan member. The figure was covered with newspaper articles that chronicled America’s long-standing racial tensions. The figure was shocking to many who saw it, and though it only stood in the U of I’s free speech zone for a few hours, it inspired outrage and a great deal of conversation. According to an Iowa State Daily article, while the artist was asked to remove the piece under the auspices of not having secured the proper permits to display it, SPLC Executive Director, Frank LoMonte noted, “”It’s hard to start dialogue about something upsetting without showing something upsetting,” Indeed. But if the dialogue was stopped through physical removal of the art, it was incumbent of the student journalists to pick up that mantel and continue it.

Journalists learn to challenge the status quo often for the first time in college. They do it, not unlike Charlie Hebdo, with cartoons, editorials, and asking tough questions when news happens. The creative social critics who employ satire often receive a great deal of push back, sometimes from peers, other times from university administrators or faculty. And when media backs down or is silenced, the conversation stops.

Real social change happens when hard conversations take place. It’s the role of journalists to push the envelope, and yes, sometimes shock or offend. But student media leaders should always weigh the consequences of such action and take these risks knowingly.

1499499_714671640617_1379616982_nAndrea Frantz, Ph.D. is associate professor of digital media at Buena Vista University, Iowa. She was installed as SCJ President at the 2014 Biennial. She’s an advocate of student journalists and the First Amendment. She’ll be blogging periodically about SCJ and other news.