Teaching Civics and Government with All the President’s Men
All the President’s Men is a classic movie about the role of the free press in a democratic society. It follows Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post as they painstakingly investigate the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover up.
This is also a film I remember watching when I was in high school in AP US Government and Politics. Before watching the film, I knew about the Watergate Scandal and Richard Nixon’s ultimate resignation. But I didn’t realize the time span over which the events unfolded or the very real possibility the reporters could have simply hit a road block and given up.
All the President’s Men is a great vehicle for talking about the relationship of the press and politics. It’s a case study for why we need a free press, but it also raises the question of whether journalists should be allowed to cite anonymous stories in their papers. It does a fabulous job of illustrating what a journalist actually does, and it gives students a window into the past – allowing for discussion of how technology and gender roles have changed in the last 50 years.
If you’ve never seen the movie, I’ll start with a quick plot summary. Below that, I’ll share five great discussion questions you can use to guide your teaching of government by using this movie.
All the President’s Men Plot Summary
The movie All the President’s Men opens with President Richard Nixon arriving at the U.S. Capitol on June 1, 1972 to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress. This is juxtaposed with the next scene, in which a security guard stumbles on the break-in several weeks later at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.
Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, gets a call from his boss and is assigned to report on the story. At first, all they know is that five burglars were arrested at the DNC headquarters. He knows there’s something amiss when he shows up to the courthouse and the burglars have an expensive attorney, but he doesn’t any real clue what the bigger picture is.
Later, he gets a tip that one of the burglars had the name of a White House staffer in his address book. He chases down some leads and starts to piece together the beginnings of a conspiracy. Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, gets involved, and the two of them slowly map out the connections between Nixon’s administration, the Committee to Re-elect the President, and the burglary.
Throughout, Woodward and Bernstein hit multiple dead ends and face push back from their editors. No other papers seem interested in the story, and some of the editors think it’s risky to keep pushing where there’s so little firm evidence. Despite a serious mishap, in which one of their major stories is undermined by a key source, they persevere.
And you know how it’s eventually going to end. The closing scene is a series of news headlines coming across the teletype, culminating in Nixon’s resignation.
Teaching Civics with All the President’s Men
From a historical standpoint, the movie is remarkably accurate. There’s some value in watching it for that reason alone, given the fact that high school social studies classes rarely spend a lot of time in the recent past.
But from a civics and government standpoint, the All the President’s Men raises one key question – is it necessary in a democracy to have a free press? What would have happened if the journalists gave up or if the editors told them to back off?
Here are a few discussion questions to help you structure a conversation in your class around the movie.
Is It Necessary in a Democracy to Have a Free Press?
The media is a major topic in any good civics and government class, and one of the fundamental ideas of a democratic society is that the media needs to be independent of the government. The story underlying this film is a case in point.
Throughout the movie, you learn that various parts of the U.S. government are party to a cover up. While they are investigating the break in at the Watergate Hotel, they’re ignoring some obvious connections and conspiracies. This is, of course, a potential risk when the Executive branch is charged with investigating itself.
If not for the persistent work of Woodward and Bernstein, you’re left wondering – what would Nixon’s government have done if the truth wasn’t published in a newspaper? Would it have convicted the burglars and a few accomplices, and swept everything else under the rug?
Relevance for Today’s Media Environment
It’s also apparent through the movie that this type of work is hard. It’s time and resource intensive. At one point, the two reporters spend two weeks making house visits to employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President. At the end of those two weeks, their editor asks what they have. Nothing.
If newspapers are healthy and profitable, they can afford to take risks like this. But if their budgets are shrinking and they have to do more with less, it can be hard to justify. Given the current trend in that direction, how are we going to sustain a free press in the future?
The New York Times and the Washington Post are still committed to national investigative journalism, but in a lot of metro areas there’s a dearth of quality local media. And that can’t be a good thing.
Should Journalists Be Able to Use Anonymous Sources?
A somewhat more controversial question is whether or not it’s ok for journalists to use anonymous sources.
At several points throughout the movie, editors make note of the fact that Woodward and Bernstein’s sources aren’t willing to be named. On the one hand, this obviously calls into question their truthfulness and reliability. It’s easy to lie when the victim of your lies can’t confront you.
But it’s also quite obvious that in a situation like this, the potential sources are under immense pressure to keep quiet. They rightfully fear for their jobs – and maybe even their lives. We now have whistleblower laws that protect employees who speak up, but those protections are often limited and imperfect.
Where is the right place to draw that line? When is it ok to use anonymous sources, and when should a media company require its journalists to use named, on the record sources?
Go Further on Confidential Sources and Journalist Shield Laws
If this is a topic that you’d like to explore further with your class, take a look at this lesson plan from C-SPAN Classroom: “Media Confidential Sources, and Shield Laws.”
I wrote this lesson plan when I was a Teacher Fellow with C-SPAN back in July 2013 (read more about the C-SPAN Teacher Fellowship here). It focuses on the debate over whether or not to adopt a journalist shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources.
When I looked back at this lesson plan, I noticed a video, quoted below, of one Representative Mike Pence. I thought it might be of particular interest, given his present position.
Protecting a journalist’s right to keep a news source confidential is not about protecting reporters. It’s about protecting the public’s right to know.Representative Mike Pence, July 20, 2005, Hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee
What Skills and Resources Do Journalists Need to Be Successful?
Another valuable lesson in All the President’s Men is that it gives your students a glimpse into what it actually means to be a journalist.
What kinds of skills do the reporters need to be successful? They think critically about problems. They have to write well. They’re sociable, and spend a lot of time talking with people. They conduct research, and do a lot of reading. They need to be able to organize and prove a case for their story, similar to a lawyer.
What about the resources that reporters need to be successful? It’s abundantly clear that relationships matter. At several points in the story, Woodward and Bernstein are only able to make progress because they have a random relationship with a person connected in some way to the story. For example, they get a list of employees at CREEP from a woman who works in the office who happened to date a man who worked for the Committee.
From a career readiness standpoint, it would be interesting and useful to have your students pay attention to these things throughout the film and then discuss – what skills and resources do journalists need to be successful at their job?
How Has Technology Changed Journalism Since This Time Period?
Watching the movie is almost like taking a step back in time to the 1970’s – in part because the film was actually filmed in the 1970’s. The film was released in 1976, so by necessity it is an accurate representation of the technology available in the 1970’s.
There are some novelties here that may be of interest to students – typewriters, pay phones, rotary phones. But aside from the novelty of seeing antiquated technology, there’s an interesting question to think about here – how has technology changed the way journalists work?
For example, everything they published went through their editor – and people who didn’t work for the paper had no voice. Would the existence of social media change this dynamic? Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have democratized the ways that information spread.
What Were Gender Roles Like in 1970’s Washington?
In the same way that the movie lets you step into 1970’s technology, it also gives you a glimpse into gender roles of the time.
The leading cast are all men. There are plenty of women characters, but they all seem to hold secretarial positions. Or, they’re someone’s wife. The only woman in a position of power that’s referenced throughout All the President’s Men is Katharine Meyer Graham – the woman who ran the Washington Post.
I wonder whether it’s a function of the times of production that she doesn’t actually appear in the film, and the only mention of her is in a misogynistic tirade. The Post, a similar but more modern movie about the 1970’s Washington Post, places Katharine Graham front and center as a protagonist.
It would be an interesting exercise to have your students keep track of all the women they see in the movie and their role.
Watch All the President’s Men This Year
All the President’s Men is not only a classic film, but it has never been more relevant. Change a few details, and Woodward and Bernstein could easily have been the Times and Post reporters investigating the 2016 election.
You should definitely give it a shot this year. Head over to Amazon and pick up a copy.
If you’re looking for some reading material, you might also want to check out the book the movie is based on. And if you’re looking for a modern movie with similar themes, check out The Post – which incidentally also features the Washington Post.
If you’re worried about not having enough time to watch movies with your class, check out these suggestions about how to teach civics and government with movies. And for some other movies worth watching, check out this list of 24 movies about civics and government.