I Saw “The Post” And It Made Me Sad
I finally went to see “The Post” over the weekend.
And it made me sad. For many reasons.
As someone who spent 42 years in journalism - including six at The Washington Post, 1975 to 1981 - Steven Spielberg’s hit movie was what I feared it would be: a poignant reminder of what newspapers once were.
And a sickening reminder of what they’re becoming.
For a glorious time in our history newspapers were committed to giving readers as much information as possible. Even if that meant publishing documents the government was trying to hide. Even if powerful friends of the publisher objected. Even if the newspaper’s own lawyers were wetting their pants.
Bravery was a key ingredient in journalism a half century ago. Not so much now.
Today’s financially strapped newspapers are addicted to page views and clicks. Hence the inane fluff pieces that saturate cyberspace and the half-reported, mistake-riddled hot takes that breathlessly appear online posing as news stories.
Accuracy is sacrificed daily for immediacy.
Every day I read stories that old-school editors would have handed back to young reporters. Telling them to try again. To make another phone call. Ask another question. Keep their damned opinions out of it.
“The Post” reminds us that in 1971 a brave publisher at The Washington Post withstood crushing pressure and threats from the White House - think about THAT for a moment - to publish classified government documents that told a terrible truth: that those who led this country during the bloody Vietnam War knew it was unwinnable and lied about it.
Forty seven years ago the publishers of The Washington Post and The New York Times went to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to publish.
Many of today’s weak-kneed newspaper execs are so terrified of lawsuits that a stern call from a two-bit lawyer in a rumpled suit sends them to their fainting couches.
Few truths are worth defending in court anymore.
“The Post” skillfully shows both the conflicting loyalties that publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee had to people they considered friends and to the public.
In the case of the Pentagon Papers, Graham’s duty to the newspaper ultimately trumped her deep friendship with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who had repeatedly assured a worried nation that the war was going well when it wasn’t.
Of course, the biggest reason that I found “The Post” a source of sadness was its juxtaposition with current events. Ironically, the same newspaper that was willing to risk financial ruin to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 recently ridiculed demands for the release of a four-page memo about a FISA warrant.
“FAR BE it from us to oppose the disclosure of sensitive government information,” began The Post's Jan. 30 editorial. “…This looks instead like a mischievous attempt to discredit the institutions responsible for assisting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and any connection Donald Trump’s campaign.”
Most newspapers - The Wall Street Journal, a notable exception - sat mutely by as the public demanded to see this memo, which was prepared by the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and claimed that in 2016 the government secured a surveillance warrant for Carter Page - who was affiliated with the Trump campaign - based largely on discredited opposition research paid for by the Hillary Clinton camp.
That memo doesn’t prove abuse of power. But the supporting documents could either prove or disprove it. The American press should be demanding the release of all pertinent paperwork.
Yet the national media has demonstrated an astonishing lack of curiosity about this case.
In the movie, Bradlee says, “We have to be the check on their power. If we don't hold them accountable, my God, who will?”
So why isn’t today’s Washington Post clamoring for the release of everything connected with this warrant to get to the truth?
Why are newspaper editorial boards around the country not questioning the entire FISA star chamber system?
Fact is, there’s no appetite for that right now. Especially since the occupant of the White House is loathed by the media. A loathing that is, of course, reciprocal.
Someone should remind editors and reporters that if the Obama administration did engage in such abuse of power, the Trump administration could do it too.
For that reason alone, the press corps should be vigorously and relentlessly pursuing this story.
Back to that other “Post.” The performances of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in the movie are masterful.
It’s a terrific film. A period piece.
Sadly, it doesn’t have much to do with journalism today.