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.

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?

Plenty.

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.