Gregory Dennis: ‘The Post’ and the legacy of the free press

“The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s latest melodrama, will lift many a heart. It recounts how the Washington Post defied the Nixon White House and a posse of prosecutors to report on the Pentagon Papers.
Editors and reporters will be among its biggest fans. As Manohla Dargis observed in her Times review, the film is about “a subject that’s dear to the heart of journalists — themselves!”
But from the perspective of today, when the power of newspapers is greatly diminished, the film also has a bittersweet tone.
The 7,000-page Pentagon Papers, which were intended to record and analyze decades of efforts to “save” Vietnam from the Communists, turned out to be a damning litany of American failure. Which is a big reason the documents were classified top secret.
A string of administrations, from Truman and Kennedy to Johnson and Nixon, had refused to publicly acknowledge the futility of the Vietnam War — even as they committed ever more troops to the bloodbath.
Unwilling to stomach that any longer, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the papers, first to the Times and then to the Post.
Ellsberg was a former Marine who had access to the Papers through his job at the RAND Corporation. He risked life in prison to reveal what he called “evidence of lying, by four presidents and their administrations over 23 years, to conceal plans and actions of mass murder.”
Indeed, over 57,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese died during the years when the American war machine descended into the Big Muddy and was ultimately forced to leave in defeat.
In “The Post,” Spielberg assembles a strong ensemble cast to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers. Much of the praise, and the inevitable Oscar nod, has been for Meryl Streep. She plays the Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, inheritor of the leadership at the family-owned newspaper after her husband’s suicide.
The filmmakers briefly highlight some of the most outrageous lies propagated by various presidents and their enablers. But the movie shortchanges the Times, which broke the story and revealed to the world what American leaders had known for years: that the war was unwinnable even as they escalated the carnage.
At the urging of the Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, and with Graham’s eventual agreement, the paper took up publication of the Papers after the Times was enjoined from further publication.
The film makes much of Graham’s conversion from a supposedly timorous figurehead to brave champion of the First Amendment.
But this movie is the rare one where Streep is less than convincing. Among other heavy lifting, she’s asked to make us believe that Graham transitioned from socialite to sword-bearer in just a few days.
Nonetheless, journalists will spend many years basking in the reflected glory of “The Post.”
One reason for this is Spielberg’s accomplishment in capturing the quotidian minutia and occasional exhilarations of old-time newpapering.
He shows us harried reporters tapping out stories on manual typewriters. Copy editors marking up these rough drafts of history in red pen. The edited hard copy being shoved into a pneumatic tube (what if it gets stuck there?) on its way to Linotype operators who set the stories.
Then we see the pressmen who run the gigantic machinery that disgorges the day’s edition (literally hot off the presses), and finally the circulation crew who toss bundled papers from fast-moving trucks onto dawn-lit city streets.
It was all enough to bring a tear to this old journalist’s eye.
Among the other journalists who have been deeply touched by the film was a Washington Post veteran I recently met on a trip.
This gentleman had worked for many years with Bradlee, the Post’s legendary editor (played in the movie by Tom Hanks). We both preferred Jason Robards’s portrayal of Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.” But what struck me most from our conversation was how much this longtime Post reporter loved Bradlee and all the years of working under his inspiring leadership.
Every reporter who’s ever sat in a newsroom wishes she’d had someone as fearsomely charming as Bradlee to be her editor. (The reality, it must be said, inevitably fell short.)
Among the overlooked heroes of “The Post” is the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the Washington Post courageously published more of the Papers when the Times was temporarily blocked from doing so, the high court almost immediately heard the newspapers’ appeal. The papers contended they should be free to continue reporting the damning contents of the Pentagon Papers.
The Supreme Court, on First Amendment grounds striking down prior restraint by the government, allowed the newspapers to proceed — thereby establishing a powerful precedent that limited the government’s power over the media and reinforced the public’s right to know.
Would today’s New York Times and Washington Post push so hard to protect the First Amendment against presidential attempts to stop leaks of top-secret documents, when publishing is demonstrably in the public interest?
I believe the Times and Post would again take their case to the top. But would today’s Supreme Court be as courageous as its 1971 predecessor?
In an age when the president of the United States attacks truth-telling media as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” we may soon find out.
Gregory Dennis was a founding editor at the Valley Voice. His column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @GreenGregdennis. 

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