‘The Post’ and lessons about freedom of the press

It’s almost impossible to view “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated film chronicling a First Amendment fight in 1971 pitting two newspapers vs. the U.S. government over reporting classified Defense Department information. without also considering what happens later.

Indeed the re-election of President Richard M. Nixon in 1972, the ensuing Watergate scandal initiated by Washington Post reporting, Nixon’s eventual resignation and the subsequent movie made of those events — “All the President’s Men” — hover like some kind of ghost of newspaper stories yet to come. And as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee wrestle with the legal and moral implications of revealing top secret Pentagon documents, it’s equally impossible not to consider the context of how the press is viewed today by a president who seems to be Nixon’s equal in terms of paranoia and his threats to the constitutional rights of a free press.

The issues are real. The stakes high. The angst credible.

That, in part is what makes “The Post” an important film for this particular time in the United States. It’s a remarkable story about freedom, U.S. history, personal growth, the evolving role of women in powerful jobs, sacrifice, government threats, corporate and journalistic responsibility, holding elected leaders accountable and bravery. Within the context of what Graham, then the relatively new publisher of the Washington Post following the death by suicide of her husband Phil, faced in making the decision to publish against the backdrop of financial ruin for her newspaper or a prison term, bravery most of all.

The New York Times and its reporter Neil Sheehan first obtained what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers through Daniel Ellsberg, who helped author the in-depth study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam for the Defense Department. By 1971, Ellsberg was fed up with an ongoing misrepresentation of what was occurring in the Vietnam War by national leaders, a history of malfeasance that stretched into five presidential administrations. In multiple cases the papers revealed outright lies by presidents and Department of Defense leaders, generating an escalating war effort that was claiming the lives of young Americans while making no headway on winning a war that could not be won.

Unlike “All the President’s Men” or 2015’s “Spotlight,” “The Post” is less about reporters investigating a wrongful act but more about a struggling “local” newspaper vying for national credibility against the mighty New York Times. As the Times begins to unravel the thousands of pages of Pentagon documents, Bradlee and the Post struggle to find any way to catch up. And once events initiated by the government against the Times make it possible to do so, the Post lands in another unenviable position — making the tough decision to publish sensitive and controversial material while the financial fortune of the newspaper hang is in jeopardy.

The ability to manipulate the emotions of an audience will be among Spielberg’s film legacies. He hits that mark successfully multiple times in ‘The Post,” sometimes when it’s not really needed. Spielberg often creates drama for the sake of drama. That stands in contrast to “Spotlight,” the Best Picture Oscar winner in 2015 about the Boston Globe investigation of long-standing sexual abuses by Catholic priests. “Spotlight” tells a much more subdued and straight-forward story about reporters and editors  doing their jobs.

Any overreaching in direction, though, is outweighed by an outstanding and grounded cast led by two multiple Oscar winners. Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham is a conflicted newspaper publisher still unsure of her footing as the film opens and she faces a major business decision but is reticent to answer questions posed by the Post’s board of directors. But when “The Post” fades to black the audience understands she’s fully in charge, there will be no turning back. When she faces controversy again a year later she will be up to the challenge. Meanwhile Tom Hanks fares well when compared to the performance of Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.” He is suitably rumpled, craggy and resolute without hysteria. He has multiple worthwhile lines but none the equal of a personal favorite by Robards in “All the President’s Men:” “When is somebody going to go on the record on this goddamn story?”

Ultimately, “The Post” functions as not only an entertaining history lesson but a larger reminder about the rights granted to all Americans when our nation was founded. An essential quote by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black cited in the film sums this up well: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Indeed, the free press in the United States isn’t here to bolster our leaders on any level, but to ask them tough questions and call them to account. It’s not always popular but it’s usually crucial to the credibility of government and the betterment of the nation.

Today the media face multiple financial threats — not unlike the Post did in 1971. The survival of journalism itself hangs in the balance in an environment in which all our foundational institutions are battling an erosion of trust or understanding.

Watching “The Post” offers a glimpse into what the role of the press should be in our society. It’s not creating listicles for online consumption or developing new clickbait ideas or tracking the exploits of this generation’s celebrity non-celebrities. It’s poring through documents and persistently asking questions in a search of answers. It’s making sure elected and government leaders are doing right by the governed. For that to happen, the government absolutely can’t be allowed to interfere.

Pentagon papers head

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “‘The Post’ and lessons about freedom of the press

  1. Agree re Speilberg’s drama-tending. Good conclusion. What do we say when our democracy edges towatd full-on oligarchy? When government and big business become synonymous because government has been paid for by oligarchs and big business lobbyists?

    Liked by 1 person

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