Assessment: Journalism Isn’t as Tidy as It Seems in ‘The Post’

By Nicola Smith
Valley News Correspondent

At a recent screening at the Nugget in Hanover of The Post, Steven Spielberg’s film about the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, the packed theater offered applause during several key moments, when the importance of the First Amendment is asserted and ultimately safeguarded by the Supreme Court.

As someone who writes for a newspaper, I say unashamedly that it was lump-in-the-throat time. This stuff matters.

The Pentagon Papers was the name given to a Department of Defense study of American involvement in Vietnam from the post-war period until 1967, which had been commissioned by Robert McNamara, secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson.

The analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study, leaked the papers to the New York Times because he was angered by the levels of governmental deceit revealed in the study. The government knew that, in the long-term, it was fighting a losing battle in Vietnam but chose to mislead the American public about the progress of the war. After a court injunction forbade the New York Times from publishing the papers, the Post took up the cause.

There are numerous ironies at work, both in the film and in life.

The Post takes place in an era when the newspaper industry was thriving: Cities around the country had not just one major paper but two or even three. There was no competition from the internet, social media or cable news. There was no Tweetocracy. TV news sources were limited to the three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. Government has always had an adversarial relationship with the press, which is as it should be, but journalists were generally held in higher esteem then than they are now.

The very people applauding The Post around the country are perhaps the same people who, if approached by a reporter to comment for a story would express irritation, condescension or suspicion, deny access or ask to approve copy prior to publication. Been there, seen that.

Admiration for the press, or at least acknowledgment of its crucial role in a democracy, is often observed more zealously in the abstract than in practice.

And the big guns of the national media are often sanctimonious messengers, which may account for why they were stunned when Trump won, and why so many distrust them. The national press has underreported the great swaths of this country which are not New York, L.A., or D.C., preferring to assume that everyone thinks, or should think, like they do.

Many years ago I was disappointed to observe that a small crew of reporters for national news organizations who were following a putative presidential candidate in New Hampshire essentially seemed to report an event by talking to each other, rather than the people there, who would eventually vote in the primary. Social media have only amplified this tendency on all sides of the political spectrum.

The press also makes mistakes, sometimes egregious ones. I’ve certainly made errors. But you might stop to ask what other vitally important national industry publishes daily corrections of those mistakes for all to see. (Facebook? Google? Big Ag, Pharma, Oil or any other industry with Big attached? I’m waiting … ). On occasion it’s done grudgingly, but it is still done, because it’s important to do so.

The Post arrives, not coincidentally, at a moment when the Trump administration has doubled, tripled, quadrupled down on the trope that the press is, in the president’s words, an “enemy of the people” — a phrase that should make any American quail. Spielberg decided to make the film after Trump was elected, and worked quickly and efficiently to get it done.

President Trump has aided and abetted not only hostility toward the press, but also, in his rallies, violence. He spins fictions and seems to expect them to go unchecked. He rails against endless press coverage but craves it at the same time.

I suppose we can only be grateful that the president isn’t canny or focused enough to manipulate or muzzle the press as thoroughly as have the totalitarian governments of the 20th and 21st centuries. He wants adulation and wall-to-wall coverage too much to shut it down, despite his bluster to the contrary.

But the dangers are there, which is why The Post, despite occasional helpings of pure Spielberg corn, is a rousing tribute to what the Fourth Estate, in full throttle, does best — taking on the powers that be. Don’t underestimate the thrill of getting people to talk, unearthing important information, nailing it down and putting the chronologies and people together in context. What’s investigative journalism but a chase movie in print?

One of the last of the old-fashioned Hollywood directors who can effortlessly sustain comedy, suspense and high drama even in one scene, Spielberg really knows how to milk those moments when something big is at stake.

When a nebbishy general assignment reporter receives at his desk a shoebox containing a portion of the Pentagon Papers, handed to him by a woman he doesn’t know, he does a double take when he sees what’s inside. He then bears the Holy Grail of a shoebox through the newsroom, heading to the office of then editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (played with verve by Tom Hanks), only to be blown off precisely because he’s a lowly general assignment reporter.

How will the reporter get through to Bradlee? You feel as if the future of the American republic is on the line, which, in a sense, it was.

Take, also, the scene when the shrewd Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (a memorable Bob Odenkirk, also known as the ethically challenged Saul Goodman from both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) calls Ellsberg, who is in hiding, from a payphone.

As he tries to put the coins in the slot, in his nervousness he fumbles, dropping them on the ground. Bagdikian reaches Ellsberg eventually, and the moment when he walks into Ellsberg’s motel room, eyes widening as he sees just how many reams of papers there are, is another high point.

The film is not only about the journalists, and the competition between the Times and the Post to publish the Pentagon Papers (not much competition: the Times had it by a mile to begin with). It focuses as closely on the transformation of Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) from loyal widow of the late publisher Phil Graham to the publisher calling the shots.

The Post is a fleet, astute exploration of how a woman brought up to be a dutiful wife and mother makes herself into a force to be reckoned with, not condescended to. And condescension there is aplenty, from the men who speak over her, don’t hear what she is saying or ignore her contributions.

The script and Spielberg give what I think is the film’s best moment to Streep, when she is called upon to decide whether to publish the papers. There are plenty of cautious, risk-averse voices urging her not to, given the threat of being held in contempt of court.

You can see Streep thinking her way through the ramifications; her cheeks flush, her eyes widen and her breathing becomes shallower. Even as she tells Bradlee, Yes, let’s go, her voice isn’t quite there yet. Until it is, and she steps fully into the role of publisher, and a guardian of the freedom of the press.

Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests, is, in many ways, a more realistic depiction of what it’s like to toil away as an ink-stained wretch. The tedium, the dead ends, the time and labor involved, the moral dilemma in pressing people to talk about things they don’t want to talk about.

But The Post makes a grander, more sweeping case for the First Amendment.

The saddest thing about the screening at the Nugget was the age of the audience. My teenage daughter was one of a handful of kids; in fact, she may have been one of two. The audience was primarily middle-aged and older, people who either lived through the era or grew up reading newspapers in print, and probably both. Whether the age of the audience says something about the state of newspapers, or is a reflection of the subject matter, I don’t know.

But if you want people under, say, 30, to understand why it’s critical to read newspapers and pay for them as they would for any other critical service, this film makes an eloquent case.

Independent journalism is always under threat somewhere, because it can be shut down, because it suffers death by a thousand cuts as it loses money, because it can go away — and it already has.

And when independent journalism disappears, or is severely diminished, there is no other institution with the tenacity, will and know how to bring the shadowy forces of corruption, malfeasance and disinformation — or even plain old incompetence — into the light of day.

Published in the Valley News, Jan. 18, 2018