I went into Steven Spielberg’s new movie, The Post, the other day as a fan boy of Katherine Graham, long-time publisher of The Washington Post, and came out humming with a powerful reminder that the press in America has a job to keep government in check. That’s being tested in this day and age of Trump.
If you don’t know the story, the movie is about the publishing of The Pentagon Papers, a secret report that showed the United Stated government knew for decades and over multiple administrations that the Vietnam War was a disaster, so they lied to the public and the press — time and time again — to avoid the shame of a military defeat. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of soldiers were sent overseas to fight, and to die.
The New York Times, and The Washington Post, led the charge to make the secret report public, and both were sued by the United States Attorney General to stop from doing so. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the press in a powerful legal moment that defined one of the pillars of our society — the press has the freedom to ignore warnings from the government over what to publish.
At the end of the movie, after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers, the entire audience in the movie theater I was in cheered and clapped at the court’s decision and at the bravery of the newspaper publishers like Kay Graham to risk jail and financial ruin, with the unspoken specter of Nixon and then Trump being in the room (neither would not want to be in that room, I am pretty sure), and all of Trump’s “fake news” utterings being exposed for what it is: a deflection of criticism and probably a real fear of the investigation underway.
“There is no collusion” being the modern version of “I am not a crook.”
The movie itself is a bit too melodramatic — it’s a movie, after all — but I found the portrayal of Graham to be solid, particularly in the scenes where she grapples with being a woman thrust into her position by the suicide of her husband and surrounded by men who think they know better than her about the company she leads. We see Graham come into her own as a powerful woman in a time when that was not common. A scene where she leaves the Supreme Courthouse and is surrounded by a sea of young women protesters is a powerful visual, and Spielberg lets the sight of Graham in the crowd tell the story of her impact in society.
The other thing I loved is the way Spielberg captures the printing press operations, and as a former newspaper journalist, I remember watching our presses rolling, and feeling the building shake as the newspaper was “put to bed” at night. The setting of type and the excitement of grabbing a paper fresh off the press … it’s all tangible reminders that the news business has changed, and we’ve lost the art of making a newspaper to the speed of updated webpages.
Peace (and power to the press),