On a cool day, we decided to see a movie. Like last year, I was hoping we could see as many as possible of the movies nominated for the Academy awards. We saw this one before the nominations came out, as we believed rightly it turns out, that it would be denominated for Best Picture
As a result we went to see The Post, a movie about the Washington Post and its owner, editor, and newspaper people reporting on the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon administration got an injunction against the New York Times who had started reporting on them first.
This was an outstanding movie about the costs, risks, and benefits of standing up to power. As Katherine Graham, the owner of the Washington Post (ably played by Meryl Streep) said, “If we don’t hold government to account why do we have a newspaper?” That is an important question, no more so than now in the age of so-called Fake News. Unfortunately there is a lot of fake news out there but it does not come from the New York Times, the Washington Post, or The Guardian and other first rate media. It comes from “fake news farms,” and other disreputable outlets. It is really sad that Donald Trump has tried to catch on to this issue. He was the primary beneficiary of fake news. He may have even contributed to its emergence (though that at least in the case of the Russian intervention in the 2016 Presidential election that has not yet been proven).
The film is extraordinarily relevant at a time when the current President of the United States, is not just attacking one newspaper, as Richard Nixon, did in the case of the Pentagon Papers, but is attacking an entire industry as fake news.
The Washington Post was threatened with lawsuits including potential prosecutions of the owner, Katherine Graham and the editor Ben Bradlee played by Tom Hanks. The timing is also extreme, because the Post was just in the process of going public on Wall Street at the time and the publicity of these threats could scare off the bankers and potential investors. It took incredible courage for Bradlee and Graham to go ahead with publishing under these circumstances. They might have gone to prison.
The film shows us this powerful jeopardy they experienced. Bradlee, who had less to lose, said bravely, “We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper…”
Until this event, Graham had been considered a light-weight newspaper owner. As one of her colleagues said, “Kay throws a great party, but her father gave the paper to her husband.” This dismissive assessment, not without a large dollop of male chauvinistic prejudice was widely shared in her newsroom.
The issue was whether or not these two would have the courage (or lack of sense) needed to publish the Pentagon Papers while facing the President of the United States through his Attorney General, in court? It amazed me that even though I thought I remembered the result, the tension was palpable. No doubt this is the sign of craftsmanship in film-making.
Finally the film gives a nod to the United States Supreme Court who ruled “the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role… to serve the governed, not the governors”