In the closing moments of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein hack at their typewriters with stone-cold determination. Each successive hammer of a key shatters through the noise of The Washington Post’s newsroom, forcing the viewer to ignore the sea of irrelevancies that might otherwise distract them. Mixing the normal sound of a typewriter with ear-crushing sounds of gunfire, artillery and canon fire, the producers of this landmark cinematic achievement were intent on driving home one uncompromising message: words are weapons. Journalists are soldiers. Every word they print is an attack on lies, obfuscation, and the men and women whose actions undermine democracy.
All the President’s Men presents the nobility of journalism in its purest possible concentration. Woodward and Bernstein, covering the humdrum and mundanity of the Washington beat, find themselves chipping away at the Nixon administration’s attempted cover-up of the Watergate Scandal — America’s most intriguing oops-a-daisy. What starts as an otherwise routine investigation soon becomes a utter mess executive deception of the highest order. Unable to simply gather quotes and straightforwardly establish the facts, the duo soon find themselves in a haze of half-truths, never-ending crumb trails, and midnight meetings at a car park with a man called “deepthroat” (Yes, I know).
Anyway, it’s important to note that, despite the never-ending vista of tan suits, black coffee, and clouds of cigarette smoke so thick that I could almost smell some scenes, our two heroes never lose their resolve. After “following the money” a few times and pressuring some emotionally fragile witnesses to tell the truth, they successfully get enough dirt to expose the highest of all possible crimes (that is, once you rule out queue-breaking and milky tea). The revelation that goons paid for by Nixon’s administration broke into the offices of the Democratic Party’s campaign team destroys all executive credibility. Richard “not a crook” Nixon resigns the presidency and is immediately pardoned by his successor. American democracy has yet to truly recover from the mistrust created by this revelation.
It might not end like a fairy-tale, but All The President’s Men comes dangerously close to wish fulfilment. In their drive to expose government corruption, Woodward and Bernstein are presented as romanticised, idealistic truth-tellers — immune, in their moralism, to any and all attempts to dissuade their efforts (efforts that, as Colin Kidd recently pointed out, have been somewhat overstated). As upstanding as any two men can possibly be, the pair lack any apprehension or cowardice short of a few fleeting, forgettable moments. Putting their lives on the line barely requires a second thought. They have no friends or loved ones in sight that might compromise their commitment. Free and independent, nothing can stop the pair from discovering that which has been hidden.
The nature of who and what they’re investigating doesn’t much get in the way of this. Even in Washington D.C, the White House affords those who nestle inside it almost complete isolation from the American public. And, in virtue of being ‘beyond’ everything and everyone else, the Oval Office comes with a natural spotlight turned upon it. Journalists are primed to look skeptically at whatever this light produces — and so it’s no wonder, then, that our duo are free from the biases and partialities that might make them look the other way. The only limit to their investigations is the extent of their honour and their ability to fully commit. The struggle only ever comes from the journalistic ethics that limit their capacity to print what they already think to be true. Someone, at the end of it all, has to get the facts straight for everyone else. This principled tension is, perhaps, the only thing that gives their earnestness a realistic shape.
When looking deeper at Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), which covers the Pulitzer Prize winning investigation of systematic child molestation committed by the one-and-only Catholic Church, the limitations of All the President’s Men become all the more clear. McCarthy’s best-picture-winning masterpiece hones in on the single most important detail that distinguishes these two works from one another: the relationship between journalist and subject. In Spotlight, the investigators at the Boston Globe (Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, Walter Robinson and Matt Carroll) are tasked by the paper’s new Editor, Martin Baron, to look into reports of child molestation commited by local Catholic priests. Robbed of the ever-present moralism that Bernstein and Woodward take for granted, the team begin their research with a certain degree of scepticism. They’re not quick to believe that the church around the corner from where they grew up houses child molesters, and they aren’t particulary excited to start asking difficult questions.
As they start uncovering the truth behind the extent of the abuse, this initial scepticism soon gives way to disbelief. And as they come to fully accept that the abuse is both systematic and institutionally covered up, the central struggle in Spotlight becomes not just the struggle to follow the truth to its full extent despite obstacles, but the internal struggle to establish the facts even when that also means establishing your own negligence in failing to investigate these crimes beforehand. Either by not paying enough attention, or by simply looking the other way, these reputable journalists failed to do their jobs. And they failed because none of them were quite willing to believe that the Church, a defining pillar of Boston’s predominantly Catholic cultural life, could perpetrate and tolerate such evil.
Spotlight forwards this message whilst likewise unravelling the unromantic, deliberate, and painstaking nature of what real journalism looks like. Gone are the days of knights running through gloomy car parks. The Spotlight team spend most of their time unglamorously piecing the story together: interviewing victims, quietly digging through transfer reports, and finding the lawyers who (legally) covered up the abuse by offering the victims pennies for their silence. Their work, like the abuse they’re investigating, is committed in broad daylight. And it’s done while each of them muddles through guilt, doubt and apprehension as they witness the magnitude of what’s they missed.
The journalists in Spotlight, like the rest of us, are flawed and morally imperfect. They’re reluctant to believe such horrible evil could be conducted so widely without their knowledge. These are people unwilling to quickly come to terms with their shortcomings. And, like you and I, their blind spots have grave social consequences — especially when their biggest blind spots concern the community to which they are tasked with questioning. Orwell put it best when he said that “to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle”. Often times, journalists live the struggle, see the truth, and print it. Other times, however, they fail to connect the dots where and when it matters most.
This is, perhaps, the most terrifying aspect of Spotlight. Despite the fact that, after being spurred on by their editor, the team diligently and masterfully expose the systematic abuse committed by the church. And despite the fact that they come to see the depths of their own negligence and the complicity of the friends who they believed to be good people — you never lose the sinking feeling that it was all just a little too contingent. The feeling that it so easily could have continued without investigation, and that everyone would have been none the wiser. It’s this feeling that seems to burden each of the journalists on the Spotlight team. None of them seem proud or emboldened. They all appear to be uneasy with the nagging thought that, if it took them this long to expose this evil, there are likely hundreds of other crimes that need their attention.
Coming away from Spotlight gives you an appreciation for journalism that All The President’s Men simply cannot invoke. Where the latter peddles in an extreme case of morally comfortable confrontations, cloathed in the impression that the truth will always inevitably emerge, the former is brave enough to highlight that, when local journalists are tasked with investigating their own community, they are in part being asked to look inward and investigate themselves. With this realism, McCarthy unashamedly demonstrates that good journalism is as painfully intimate as critical self-reflection — containing all the same frustrations, inadequacies and inhibitions. It’s not just about discovering what others are hiding from you. The ultimate struggle, beyond all the practical obstacles all journalists must deal with, comes in discovering that which you have hidden from yourself.