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150 Films #5: All the President’s Men (1976)

The truth matters.

The news media drives me nuts, because I want every reporter to be a Bob Woodward or a Carl Bernstein. I want every editor to be a Ben Bradlee or a Harry Rosenfeld. Because, at the end of the day, what sets All the President’s Men (both the film and the book) apart from many tales of cover-ups and corruption is that it’s a story of the work, not what the work uncovered. It’s a story about the importance of a free press, and what it can accomplish when all the players want the same thing: the truth, the objective facts of the all-important five Ws.

Journalism has declined since the advent of cable news and, especially, the internet. It’s getting worse, too, as the social media electro-din gives meaning to the meaningless and spins stories before journalists even get their hands on them. Social media can be used as a tool, and so can cable news, and so can any other method of communication. But people tweeting are not journalists, and democracy doesn’t mean the truth becomes what the majority says it is.

All the President’s Men is the story of reporters pulling a string that, once unraveled, brought down the President of the United States. It’s the story of an editorial board keeping in check their exuberance, which at times bordered on irresponsibility. It’s the story of criminals who believed they were above the law, but perhaps not so above the law that they could get away with “disappearing” the only two reporters pulling at their string.

As a film, it’s an unvarnished yet idealistic docudrama of the process of good journalism. Despite the surface-gloss casting of hunky leading men (’70s edition) Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as, respectively, nerdy and schlubby Woodward and Bernstein, the story itself remains unvarnished because the actors dive into their characters and show these young reporters as impatient and impetuous, often opportunistic and deceitful with sources, rushing to judgment even when they don’t have all the facts (or don’t have the facts they do have checked and double-checked).

The idealism comes through in spades in its portrayal of complex newsroom dynamics and the power of responsible journalism. Woodward and Bernstein—the Republican small-town WASP and the urban Democrat—act as each others’ checks and balances. When they put their heads together and become the two-headed pain in the ass nicknamed “Woodstein,” the editors rein them in. When they have the story, they run it. When they don’t, the pair go back to work. Digging, always digging…

It would be naïve to believe this is how journalism “used to be.” The point of the film is that Woodstein and The Washington Post were an anomaly. So was Ben Bradlee, who sicced his boys on this story because he was a lifelong Democrat who worked for the Kennedy campaign. But he was smart and practical enough to realize that, even if he personally had an ideological reason for letting them keep at this story even when it looked like they had nothing, he couldn’t let ideology cloud his judgment. He couldn’t let sponsors or corporate overlords dictate the story, either. He had integrity. Woodward and Bernstein and Rosenfeld had integrity. A rare thing in general, and especially in journalism.

Muckraking, the so-called yellow journalism, is as ancient as the reporting of facts. The ancient historical documents that have survived broadcast rumors and legends as fact (sometimes noting them as such, often not). Perhaps the most well-known ancient “history” in the world, the Hebrew Bible, was written with the flavor of an historical document to enhance its legitimacy (and the gospels followed suit, particularly Luke/Acts); whether or not any of it was true didn’t matter.

On and on down the line, the reporters of fact show their bias. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the notion of a free press gave way to the notion of journalistic ethics, that newspapers shouldn’t intentionally report hoaxes to drive up circulation, that they shouldn’t choose sides and print lies supporting their chosen bias. Codes of ethics helped, but journalism remains a questionable profession. It always will.

What made The Washington Post‘s coverage of Watergate special, and worthy of emulation, is that the team working on the stories admitted their preexisting biases upfront: to themselves and to each other. A good reporter, of which there are remarkably few, acknowledges that he or she cannot be objective 100% of the time. The value of a good partner and/or editor is that they can ask, “Are you sure you aren’t twisting this to make Nixon into a cartoonish supervillain?”

The value of a good mind is the ability to ask yourself the same question, instead of telling yourself, “I know I’m objective. Therefore, nothing I write can ever be biased.” Human beings have thoughts, opinions, and feelings. Acknowledging them is the first step toward managing them, managing them is the first step toward ignoring them—which a reporter must do in order to report objectively.

Inspired by rewatching this film, I’ve finally begun to read Rick Perlstein’s epic tome Nixonland. I’m only about 50 pages into it, but based on what I’ve read so far, Perlstein’s biases are evident: it’s a given that Nixon was a bad person, a crass manipulator and inveterate liar who never even had a thought that wasn’t calculated to both push himself upward while kicking his enemies downward. Maybe Perlstein is aware of this venom, privately, but so far in the book, he has not acknowledged it to the reader. His vicious, brutal writing casually insults Nixon and his allies, inserting hostile thoughts and psychological motivations that may have been borne of research but could just as easily be guesswork. He doesn’t even spare Nixon the loss of his brothers, and the effect that had on his relationship with his parents—a potential source of empathy twisted, by Perlstein, into the origin story of Nixon’s legendary persecution complex.

Hating Nixon is not the problem; who doesn’t? Even writing a scathing, 900-page op-ed version of history excoriating Nixon is totally fine—as long as we don’t call it straight-up, objective journalism.

Still, the yellow journalism of a century ago turns a pale shade of cream in comparison to today’s crass, corporatized mass media. Enormous conglomerates absorbing news outlets is not, as such, an evil. What they do to these organizations is. Burying stories unfavorable to sponsors, partners, or political allies; twisting even the most objective attempts at news into calculated narratives designed to offend the smallest number of investors/customers/”friendlies.” Journalism isn’t explicitly about alienation or offense; it is, however, about unvarnished facts.

Good journalists, hamstrung by the desires of their overlords, end up quitting to do something more valuable with their lives. This leaves shitty journalists, with shitty editors reporting to incompetent liaisons to The Powers That Be. I’m not convinced journalism was ever altogether good—but today? It’s bad, and it’s getting worse.

All the President’s Men shows what journalism can be and, for one shining moment in history, actually was. It’s a story of how the work should be done. It should serve as a litmus test for anyone entering the field; anyone who doesn’t want to do this work, this way, can leave. Any corporate infrastructure who wants to interfere with this work, with reporting the unvarnished truth, should sell this asset to a company (or individual) with integrity.

This story means a lot to me. I’m not a journalist (that much is obvious to anyone who reads my unresearched, oftentimes rambling opinion pieces), but there is virtually nothing in the world I value more than the truth and the freedom to express it. As this freedom is systematically removed from the people and slid into the hands of agenda-driven conglomerates, I look back at All the President’s Men with a mixture of despair and hope: despair at what things have become, hope that it’s not too late to change things.

Journalists can do better. So can we, by making the choice to ignore stories of coffee cups and political candidates who will be forgotten a year from now. As I expressed after the Paris attacks, social media returns some amount of journalistic power to the people: we can dictate what’s reported through our sharing and commenting on stories that actually matter.

Journalism has always been a profit-driven enterprise. The reason so many outlets have ended up bought and sold, rebought and resold, for the past three decades is because those without integrity have removed the luxury of reporting what matters over what’s profitable. Papers, websites, radio stations, television affiliates fail, get bought up by conglomerates, get “reformed” into profitability—but we can dictate what’s profitable by the stories we choose to reward with clicks. We can dictate what matters by boycotting conglomerates who pressure their subsidiaries into burying stories that hurt their bottom lines. Sure, they have a reason to bury those stories, but nothing will hurt their bottom line more than no audience.

To paraphrase another famous movie about the media, we have the choice to be mad as hell and not take it anymore. It’s up to each of us, as individuals, to force their hands by proactively making better choices.

Will we do it? (Spoiler alert: no.)

Keep or Sell: Keep

Up Next: All the Right Moves (1983)

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  • Thanks for the interesting perspective. For what it’s worth, it’s in the eye of the beholder: many readers have told me that after Nixonland they felt sympathy and even affection for Nixon for the first time! All best, RP

    Rick Perlstein 5 years ago Reply Link

    • Thank you for commenting. I just switched my blogging software, so I’m surprised to get any response, much less a comment from the author of a book I mentioned!

      Based on your comment, I thought I should go back and edit my post to make it clearer that I’m not far into the book and am only reacting based on what I’ve read so far. Apologies if it came across like I was being unfair.

      D. B. Bates 5 years ago Reply Link

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