Go ahead, get choked up at The Post. Nostalgia’s healthy.
Not just for the linotype machines and cigarette smoke and awful clothing of the newspaper biz of the early 1970s. But for a journalism world that barely exists anymore. (Except for the clothing. We—I mean they—still dress awfully. See: khakis.) Whatever the movie’s faults, it’s an inspiring story of ink-stained heroes standing up to corrupt and abusive power that we need right now—even if it’s a fantasy in “fake news” 2017.
We’re in a First Amendment red alert.
Director Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-bait holiday release chronicles the true story of The Washington Post’s publication of The Pentagon Papers, with Tom Hanks as legendary editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham. As a longtime reporter, I found the greatest willing suspension of disbelief to involve an executive editor and a publisher as sympathetic characters.
Still, it’s a thrilling account of both the chase to get the leaked documents proving the Vietnam War was a sham and the risk in publishing them that could have ended the great Washington paper—not to mention preempted the existence of All The President’s Men in 1976. (Think of The Post as its prequel, with Hanks and his toupee in the role that won Jason Robards an Oscar.)
The Post is cheesy and manipulative—in other words, a Spielberg movie. And its dialogue, from screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is so on-the-nose at times that I realized I was actually wincing. Particularly in this scene: As Bradlee’s sandwich-slingin’ wife, Tony, Sarah Paulson delivers a monologue about how, sure, he’s brave, but if things go badly, he can get another job. The real bravery is in Graham, who’s doing all of this while being a woman (I’m paraphrasing). To drive the point home, the film shows Graham constantly beset by a bow-tie patriarchal scold (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) on the newspaper’s board, who viewers know is 100 percent guaranteed to get a Righteous Verbal Comeuppance before the credits roll.
It’s that phoned-in (rotary, of course). But that doesn’t matter.
Because Tony is right about Graham and women. And we’re living in such unsubtle times that such statements—and the explicit, intentional parallels to Donald Trump’s America—need to be blunt force. We’re in a First Amendment red alert, and if journalism’s in crisis, so is the country.
Here’s where the tearful nostalgia comes in:
As terrible as Nixon and Agnew were, they at least appeared to have read the First Amendment.
Remember back when the government lying about a bullshit war was an enormous scandal for the Nixon adminstration, and how he resigned in shame after covering up the Watergate burglary? Now, after two full terms, George W. Bush goes on talk shows to hawk his crappy art books with zero risk of being called a war criminal for Iraq. And Twitter won’t even suspend Trump’s account for threatening to nuke 25 million North Koreans.
Experts including John Dean—who should know—say Trump’s exposed wrongdoing is worse than Watergate. Not only does Trump not have to flee to avoid impeachment after a warning from his own party (see: Dean to Nixon’s “cancer on the presidency”), but he’s broken the GOP’s will to the point that, this week, he basked in a round of flattery that would have made Dear Leader Kim Jong Un say, “Hey, you’re coming on kind of strong.”
Speaking of broken will: Think of Bradlee and his crew while you watch our sputtering White House press corpse ineffectively try different ways of asking the press secretary to say a thing that’s not a lie. And tolerating this role. Every day.
Katherine Graham publisher of Washington Post and Ben Bradlee.
Photo by Bettmann / Contributor.
Richard Nixon—appearing in silhouette in The Post, his voice taken from the real Oval Office tapes—was megalomaniacal, hated the press, and wanted to torpedo the Post and those who exposed him. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, hated journalists too and described them as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Who isn’t nostalgic for that kind of eloquence after a year or so of “fake news!” flung by a toddler?
Deregulated, corporate-owned talk radio is now entirely dominated by conservative voices.
Fox News and Breitbart don’t exist in the world of The Post, and it will be years before Ronald Reagan whacks the Fairness Doctrine, which helpfully provided broadcasters the standards of “honest, equitable, and balanced,” and Bill Clinton deregulates the telecommunications industry—both massively corrosive to democracy.
As terrible as Nixon and Agnew were, they at least appeared to have read the First Amendment and didn’t wage an overt war on the free press. Today we have Trump calling it “the enemy of the American people.” Stadiums full of Make America Great Again hats cheer him and threaten journalists.
I hope those people see The Post and remember who the good guys and the bad guys are.
For many years, when I met people who immediately looked down their noses at the press, I’d tell them: Look, without journalists, all you’d know is what people with more money and power than you want you to know. (Or if I was in the U.K., I’d also admit that maybe what we really needed was nudity on page three.)
And now we’re nearly there. Journalists today are up against much more than Bradlee and Graham were.
If events of The Post happened today, there would be nonstop debates in the 24-hour cable news cycle of experts arguing against WaPo for phony balance. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, is now seen as a hero and elder statesman of whistleblowers by everyone but fringe, authoritarian, right-wing cranks. What would have happened to him in today’s political climate? (See: Edward Snowden, whose condemnation even came from—most shamefully—some journalists.)
For two decades, Fox News was the propaganda organ of the GOP, and now it’s effectively State News under Trump. Soon, the massive Sinclair Broadcast Group–Tribune Media merger will flood the majority of American homes with that sewage. And the recent killing of net neutrality hardly bodes well for a free press.
Maybe The Post will be a fake-news palate cleanser.
Meanwhile, the L.A. Weekly and Las Vegas Review-Journal were bought by oligarchs to silence them, and Gawker was sued out of existence by another rich person for the same reason. TIME magazine is caught in the tendrils of the billionaire Koch brothers. What do you think that’ll do for objectivity and freedom?
Don’t forget: Deregulated, corporate-owned talk radio is now entirely dominated by conservative voices. Even NPR presents such patently destructive and complex matters as the GOP tax bill as one-side-versus-the-other-side debates.
All of this, of course, is on top of the newspaper industry’s ongoing extinction. Sure, Craigslist stole their ad revenue, but they had a hand in their own demise by making themselves irrelevant. (See: “objectivity.”)
These obstacles make returning to Bradlee and Graham’s world unfeasible, like bringing back the passenger pigeon. The Post, then, is historical fantasy.
But because it’s a mainstream, entertaining movie by the guy who made E.T., and likely will glom awards, maybe The Post will be a fake-news palate cleanser, a reminder that what journalists do is essential in a functioning democracy. Maybe journalists will watch those old-timers with their glorious combovers and remember their own responsibility and power. Will they stand up to Trump and tell him, No one who consumes Fox News and Breitbart ever gets to call us fake news?
And maybe others who settle down with their popcorn to watch The Post will remember it later when they’re picking a channel or a website. Or when a crazy, press-hating president talks like a dictator.