In the Era of Trump’s “Fake News” Claims, “The Post” is a Reminder of What is at Stake
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
The New York Times is currently running full-page ads offering a paperback edition of its book, “The Pentagon Papers,” based on the stories the Times broke in 1971 about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Across the ad runs a blurb declaring: “The most significant leaks of classified material in American history.” It’s not without irony that the source for this endorsement is rival newspaper The Washington Post.
For although the Times got the story first, the Post is reaping the glory in Steven Spielberg’s excellent new film, “The Post.” The film follows in thriller-like fashion the competitive drive that led the Washington Post to play catch-up and publish the classified documents even after the Times was ordered by the courts to stop. Spielberg has a flair for capturing the tensions between Post reporters and editors, notably editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, and publisher Katherine Graham, played by the inimitable Meryl Streep, who’s told by her advisors and lawyers that doing so would threaten the financial stability of the newspaper after it had just gone public on the American Stock Exchange.
Caught between the two sides, the film dramatizes that moment when Graham says, “Let’s go. Let’s publish.” It took courage and a deep sense of responsibility to freedom of the press for Graham, one of the most admired women of her time, to make that decision — a fact neatly captured in a scene near the end of the film.
Spielberg demonstrates a flair for getting the pulse racing in a story about a newspaper standing up for freedom of the press when confronted by a White House bent on keeping secrets secret. It’s a much-needed antidote to the current wave of press bashing.
“The Post” is a story about journalism largely seen from the top of the editorial chain — the publisher and the editor. That said, the film gets some of the little newsroom touches right: There’s the ever-competitive Ben Bradlee wondering what’s going on over at the New York Times because he hasn’t seen the byline of one of its top reporters, Neil Sheehan, for months (Sheehan was the Times’ lead writer on the Pentagon Papers stories). There’s reporter Ben Bagdikian on the phone calling every source he has to see if he can get his hands on a copy of the Papers. There’s the team of reporters quickly going through the trove of papers they’ve received and writing stories on deadline. Bagdikian refusing to disclose his source for the Papers. You can feel the adrenaline flowing as reporters work on a big story and their dedication to their craft and the pursuit of truth.
At the same time, the film tries to deal with the insularity of the “Washington Establishment” and the problems it imposes on doing honest journalism. Graham was a close friend of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the war in Vietnam. It was McNamara who commissioned writing of the top-secret history of the U.S. role in Vietnam. That friendship blinded her to the possibility that McNamara was less than candid about the progress of the war. Then there’s Bradlee, who was a close friend of President John F. Kennedy (Bradlee even authored a book titled “Conversations with Kennedy”). Because of those close ties, Bradlee was less than critical of Kennedy’s policies, and, indeed, Kennedy probably played on that cozy relationship with his friend in the press.
“The Post” is a timely reminder of why the press plays an essential role in a democracy. Too often we get caught up in the reductive repetition of President Trump’s “fake news” so we forget what real journalism is about. Journalism is about gathering the best obtainable version of the truth and telling people what you found out clearly and accurately. Journalism is about recognizing that powerful people lie, and exposing those lies. There’s a long-forgotten journalism film in which an editor describes the value of a newspaper this way: “It gives a lot of information to a lot of people who would not know about these things if we hadn’t taken the trouble to tell them . . . (it’s) the sum total of the work of men and women who don’t quit.” The Washington Post didn’t quit when it came to the Pentagon Papers, and it didn’t quit a few years later during the Watergate investigation. For that, the nation owes the newspaper a debt of gratitude.
Still, there’s a lot of cynicism and distrust amongst the public about what they read in newspapers or see on television or share on social media. So much cynicism and distrust that some gleefully accept President Trump’s canard of the press as the “enemy of the people.” So, at this point in history, it’s useful to remember the words of Justice Hugo L. Black in his concurring opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding publication of the Pentagon Papers:
“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the Government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the working of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the founders hoped and trusted they would do.”
Gerald Kato is an associate professor and chair of the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa’s School of Communications. He is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist who covered government and politics in Hawai‘i for many years. Kato also served as an interviewer on the oral history project for the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.