I am a self-professed “All the President’s Men” freak. I lived through Watergate as a high school student and studied it as a fledgling journalist in the late 70’s and early 80’s. My tattered copy of the paperback now rests on a shelf in my son’s house. He discovered the intrigue, the tenacity and the power of reporting the truth by viewing my copy of the videotape on the sly. We later had great conversations watching the movie the second time around, interrupted only by my “here’s a good part” or “listen to what he says here.” I show it now as a part of my journalism IA classes each semester during our discussions on history, ethics and libel. Over the last eight years it has become a right of passage for staff members – they speak with battle-weary words about “that movie” and how they survived its viewing.
But they remember.
Which is why I found it ironic that the same week in Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein’s notes and other paraphernalia went on display in 2005 at the University of Texas at Austin that a survey showed 73 percent of high school students take the First Amendment for granted or don’t know how they feel about it. The numbers haven’t improved in the last five years.
I am not concerned that so many high schoolers in the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation survey take this fundamental right for granted but those who don’t know how they feel and the 36 percent who believe newspapers should not be allowed to publish without government approval – now that is downright scary.
After watching “All the President’s Men,” my students, even those who swear they fell asleep, retain some sense of how hard it was for Woodstein – the scene in the Library of Congress leafing through thousands of cards, interviewing and re-interviewing members of the Committee to Reelect the President (CRP – pronounced ‘creep’) and that scene when Woodward types “Deep Throat says our lives are in danger.” They laugh at the lack of technology, the dress, the occasional profanity – but they remember.
In a current events discussion a few years ago, a Journalism IB student told me that he had heard that stuff from “that movie” was on display and we as a class dreamed about a field trip to see it after I reminded them of “that scene when Bernstein wrote on napkins and matchbooks.”
Perhaps that’s why high schoolers today take the First Amendment for granted – things are too easy. Research is at the fingertips of anyone with a keyboard. You can have Google, answer your questions, provide you with photos and have a cyber conversation with individuals around the world, all from the comfort of your home computer – free from human contact – no pressure, no emotion. In fact for this article, I was able to find a passage in Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and the first 10 Constitutional Amendments in less than five minutes. News is all around – pick your spin. Everyone has websites, live journals and chat rooms to express their opinions – it’s easy to spout thoughts off the top of your head and get an immediate response – what do we need newspapers for anyway?
How about the facts as free from manipulation as possible or the truth from every angle without judgment? How about people whose first thought is to get it right, who check and recheck, who work to find out what date the meeting happened, how the name is spelled and if the reader will know the impact – and that is only for one story in one newspaper. The process is repeated in newsrooms at all levels, in all sizes of cities across the country.
What many of us forget is that the First Amendment is not the exclusive property of newspapers – it is a set of individual freedoms – that most of us only think about or worry about when it suits us to get our point across.
Newspapers take care of the hard part – holding government accountable, being a forum for those people who burn the American flag, whose sons and daughters die in wars, whose words challenge our beliefs and pierce our souls with anger. The media protects our freedoms because it is not so much a job as a Constitutionally-protected mission – one for which men and women have given up their own freedom and lives.
One of my student editors said it best, “That (newspapers publishing with government approval) had better not happen – all hell would break loose.”
Only 45 words, the First Amendment is simply stated and easy to understand but teaching and living it as a foundation of government is fraught with complications. The First Amendment is hard – to protect, to accept, to utilize but the rewards and results for those who stand firm, who stand up are immeasurable and critical to the journalism profession and the future of this country.
It’s too easy to forget.