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A movie for our fake news times

Twice a year, I watch All the President’s Men, the 1976 film version of the best-selling book of the same title by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

I do this not only because the movie inspired me, but also because I believe it is an excellent teaching tool for my Introduction to Journalism class.

So, once every semester, I sit down with college students who weren’t even born when Woodward and Bernstein, as young reporters for the Washington Post, brought down the most powerful man in America, US President Richard Nixon, through a series of well-documented articles they wrote from 1972 to 1974.

As I watched the movie again this week, I thought about how foreign certain aspects of the film might seem to my young students, who were born and raised in a constantly online world.

Early in the movie, when five burglars set the scandal in motion by breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, their lookout is unable to warn them that cops are headed their way because all they have are noisy walkie-talkies that they have to turn off to maintain radio silence. History might have taken a different course had they been able to avoid arrest with the help of mobile technology and text messages. But Motorola was still a year away from making the first mobile phone call in 1973, and more than a decade away from bringing its DynaTAC phone to market.

So it was that the burglars were arrested and Woodward was assigned to cover their arraignment—only to stumble upon something much bigger, a covert, well-funded campaign to sabotage the Democrats that eventually led straight to the White House.

In the thick of their investigation, when Bernstein tells Woodward “somewhere in this world there is a Kenneth H. Dahlberg,” his partner doesn't go to a laptop or his phone to type the name into Google. Instead, he goes through stacks of thick phone books to find him, his search narrowed only by a research assistant who brings him a hard copy clipping of a photograph that offers a clue as to which city and state he resided.

When the two reporters try to find someone from the Committee to Re-elect the President who will talk, they don't shoot off an e-mail barrage or find them on Facebook; they go door-to-door.

There is no doubt that digital technology would have made life much easier for Woodward and Bernstein. But in 1972, ARPANET, the precursor of the internet, was still more than a decade away, and the World Wide Web would not be invented for another 18 years.

In fact, the newsroom we see in the movie would be almost unrecognizable to reporters today. When Woodward and Bernstein write their stories, they pound them out on manual typewriters and rolls of copy paper. When they talk to sources, they do so on rotary phones. Wire stories move, not on computer terminals but on noisy teletype machines.

Still, as the late Roger Ebert wrote, All the President's Men “provides the most observant study of working journalists we're ever likely to see in a feature film.”

“Newspaper movies always used to play up the excitement and ignore the boredom and the waiting. This one is all about the boredom and the waiting and the tireless digging,” he added.

Indeed, the patience and persistence that Woodward and Bernstein exhibited seem almost quaint in our instant-on, always online 24/7 news cycle.

Of course, computers, the internet and mobile phones could have helped Woodward and Bernstein with their research. But it is conceivable, too, that the very lack of online technology somehow helped them in their efforts to expose wrongdoing in the highest office in the land.

The relatively longer news cycle, for one, gave journalists more time to fact-check their stories. Without e-mail, reporters still went to newsrooms to file their stories, making it easier for editors to interact directly with them. Then too, without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media that enable the unfiltered publication of information true or false, there were much fewer avenues for “fake news” to drown out the truth.

Chin Wong is associate editor of Manila Standard. 

Topics: Mail matters , All the President’s Men , Bob Woodward , Carl Bernstein , Journalism
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