Journalism basics (movie edition)

Dustin Hoffman, left, as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford, right,
as Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men."

And now, a short break from our Journalism Basics for a movie: "All the President's Men." In addition to being a terrific film and a great history lesson, this is an excellent primer on how journalists operate and the difficulties that await even the best of them.

"All the President's Men" (for the few who don't know) is the true story of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two junior reporters at the Washington Post who stumbled into the Watergate scandal and, despite their inexperience, proceeded to report the hell out of it and help bring down President Nixon in the process.

Few films have captured the job of the reporter better than this one. We're there for the glory moments when a big scoop falls into place and Woodward and Bernstein are riding high. We watch them go through the grunt work of reporting (the scene where they manually search thousands of index cards in the Library of Congress should quell any notion of a reporter's life being glamorous). And we see at least one moment when they make a big mistake and struggle to recover from it.

"Woodstein," as they came to be know at the Post, and their editors, including the legendary Ben Bradley, practically wrote the book on how to conduct an investigation like this: Always get things from two sources before publishing. Dig hard and dig everywhere. Don't be afraid to be a pest if it will further the story. Have no life other than the story. Be hungry and stay hungry. Follow the money.

My favorite scene in the film occurs in the evening. Ben Bradley (played by Jason Robards, left,) stops by the newsroom on his way out for the evening. Woodward and Bernstein are excited and anxious about their latest story, confident that it will move their investigation forward.

Bradley takes their typewritten pages (no computers in 1973) and starts to read. And read. "You haven't got it," he finally says. They complain but he won't be budged. He takes out his red editing pen and starts to mark up their copy.

"Stick it inside someplace," he says to another editor. When Bernstein complains this is a "goddamn important story," Bradlee replies: "Get some harder information next time."

Perfect. And a lesson worth learning: Make sure you've really got the "harder information," not the soft stuff, before you publish.

Near the end of the film, Woodward and Bernstein go to Bradlee's house late at night. They made a big mistake in a story and they've been trying to figure out what went wrong. Turns out, a source misunderstood Bernstein's confirmation instructions. The story was right, but not for the reason they said.

They're exhausted and scared (Deep Throat has warned them their lives may be in danger), and they're wanting a break and, probably, a little sympathy. Bradlee isn't having it:
"You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. 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 Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I'm going to get mad. Goodnight."
Terrific stuff. That's what journalism is all about. Go and watch it. The book is worth reading, too.

Also, check out Woodward's book on Mark Felt, the FBI official who was his secret source, Deep Throat.


paulbalcerak said...

I actually just watched this for the first time a couple months ago (weird, I know, because everyone else I talk to seems to think "All the Presidents Men" is a college journalism course in and of itself). The movie's obviously dated and a lot of the journalistic romanticism is from another time, but what gets me are the little tricks used to get interviews/answers—particularly the scene where Bernstein coaxes his way in to a source's home. That is the kind of thing that'll always be around (or at least be useful) no matter how many wires and iPhones get thrown into the equation.

Curt said...

If you liked "All the President's Men," check out "The Parallax View," also directed by Alan J. Pakula. Fascinating and scary with one of the great opening scenes ever (a political assassination on the observation deck of the Space Needle followed by a chase across the Needle's roof!). Warren Beatty stars and he plays ... a newspaper reporter! Here's the info from IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071970/