“The Post” and the Press

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Everybody who wants to see “The Post” has seen it already.  As a former journalist I have a few observations about the movie, about why it was made and about films that promote political views.

The film shows how the editor and publisher of the once-sleepy Washington Post saved the country from Richard Nixon the first time by publishing the Pentagon Papers; this is before the Post saved the country from Nixon the second time, which was the subject of another popular movie in 1976.

Much of the story is about publisher Katherine Graham, whom Meryl Streep portrays as a deferential, fretful former housewife venturing fearfully into the job she has assumed after her husband’s death.  This bugs me.  We know from Graham’s memoir (out in a new edition now) that she grew into her role, but I prefer to see her as graduating from steadfast to formidable.  My take only.

The other part of the story tells how real news people deal with a bad guy in the White House.

This is signaled early on, when President Richard Nixon tries to deny a Washington Post reporter access to daughter Patricia Nixon’s wedding.

Tom Hanks, playing a not entirely convincing Ben Bradlee, asserts that the Post won’t stand for the administration “dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we write about them!”

Bradlee’s call to arms:   “The only way to defend the right to publish is to publish!”

Acting on this conviction is the meat of the story.

Post journalists and Graham persevere even as their perseverance threatens the very existence of the newspaper.  They are threatened by the Nixon administration and insufficiently supported by their own squishy attorney, who is of course a pudgy blond guy.

It ends with the Post triumphant and Nixon paranoid, a dark image viewed through the Oval Office curtains, plotting revenge on the Post late at night.

One irony is that Nixon’s Justice Department went after the New York Times and the Post for revealing the lies and and bad faith of two previous, Democratic administrations.  (Nixon was a Republican, of course.) The Pentagon Papers were an honest evaluation of the Vietnam fiasco.   The analysis was ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, and completed before MacNamara left office in 1968.

Nixon was elected promising to end American involvement in Vietnam (which took him too damn long.)  Still, 50 years later, here’s a question: Why would Nixon care so much about the release of old information that made his predecessors, not him, look bad?

Anyway, “The Post” is a big wet smooch to journalists who stand up to government overreach.  Here is a typical review conclusion.

Steven Spielberg’s tense, terrific new drama celebrates the passionate bond 
between a free press and every thinking human being, 
however diminished the species in Trump’s America.
 
 
Context

Okay, fine.  One thing that movie critics perhaps do not know is that we have had a more recent president who regarded the press and and government leakers as enemies to be prosecuted.  I speak of Barack Obama.

If you don’t believe me, here is what Ben Bradlee’s successor said:

Th(e Obama) administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information 
are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, 
when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists … I interviewed for this report 
could not remember any precedent.
 

This is from Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor off the Washington Post for 17 years.  It is the conclusion of a blistering critique he wrote in 2013 for the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

One journalist who attracted the administration’s ire was James Risen, a national security correspondent for the New York Times.  (Risen sounds like a touchy guy, as investigative reporters can be.)  He was frustrated by his editors’ foot-dragging and by a Bush administration subpoena that demanded he reveal his sources, but he reserved his greatest fury for the Obama justice department.

In 2014, Risen said this:

 
“A lot of people … don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down 
on the press and whistleblowers. But he does. 
He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

 

You can read about Risen’s travails in this 2015 Vanity Fair article, or in his own, longer first-person article on the Intercept website earlier this month.

The administration also was aggressive in prosecuting leakers.  Edward Snowden got away, and prominent targets — Risen and David Petraeus, for example — got lighter treatment than the lesser known former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, who is now in a federal prison.


Conclusion

“The Post” was put together in a relatively speedy nine months, and pretty clearly in reaction to the election of Donald Trump.

You don’t have to be a Trump fan — and I’m not — to see that projecting every Nixonian evil on the guy may not be accurate.  In fact, the federal bureaucracy has found its voice in the last year.  There have been many leaks from federal employees, ranging from the FBI to the State Department to the regulatory agencies, all followed up by an enthusiastic press and with no consequences imposed other than angry tweets.

This is my problem.  “The Post” sets out to provide moral instruction and to gratify the beliefs of people who believe that Trump is all bad and that Obama was all good.

The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that.

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