Pentagon Papers movie “The Post” inspires

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This is going to be that exceedingly rare time that I rave about a movie.

Sunday night, at my wife Jennifer’s insistence, we went to see “The Post,” a movie that tells the story of the Washington Post’s role in publishing stories about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film stars Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee.

I am not a frequent movie watcher, and I’m not qualified to review this movie on its artistic merits, so I will leave that to more capable hands. But, I can tell you that I quite enjoyed watching “The Post” and left feeling inspired.

I was at points moved to tears, as was Jennifer. When the movie ended, the audience cheered.

The events covered in the movie happened months before I was born. These were the days when newspaper reporters used typewriters to write their stories, and Linotype machines to set them for print. There were no cell phones and no personal computers.  

Considering the size and audience of the Washington Post even in 1971 and the national importance of the stories they covered, it may sound like a stretch to say that I could relate to a lot of the things in the movie.

The Pentagon Papers were a top secret Department of Defense study of US – Vietnam relations from 1945 to 1967. Leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, the documents told a story about America’s role there that contradicted what the government had been telling the public. The papers were initially leaked to the New York Times, who had started publishing stories about them before the Richard Nixon administration got an injunction to stop it.

The movie covers the Post’s efforts to obtain the documents and print stories about them even while the Times was under injunction.

I thought the movie did a good job portraying many aspects of the dilemmas we face in publishing the news — even if our normal subject matter here at the Lewisville Texan Journal is much less weighty.

The competition between the Post and the Times, and how it drove the Washington Post to produce its stories faster, is something we have at the local level. We always want to be first, or best, or have something the others don’t. I suspect it’s the same for our competition, and we think that’s a good thing for local coverage.

The Washington Post had to publish some things that were pretty negative about the government and its elected and appointed officials. The movie portrayed Graham as having a close friendship with Robert McNamara, who had been the Secretary of Defense who commissioned the study. Yet, in the end, Graham approved the publication at great financial risk to herself and the paper.

From time to time, we have similar challenges where we have to publish things that paint local governments and officials in a non-flattering light. This happens even if one of us happens to be friendly with the people involved.

In one of the scenes in the movie, Bradlee brings Graham a stack of newspapers from across the country that had followed the Post’s and Times’ lead in publishing about the Pentagon Papers. The two saw it as validation and an act of solidarity with their choice to publish. I could identify with that. There are times when we decide we have to publish a story, knowing that it was a close decision others might argue with, and may not choose. When we see other outlets choosing to go with a story we picked, it’s validating when they do it after we do, and sometimes frustrating when they beat us to it.

The movie is timely, now that journalists and news outlets find themselves attacked as “fake news” whenever they publish something unflattering.

It serves to remind us of how vital a free press is, and how in order to retain our constitutional rights, we have to exercise them. Our founding fathers knew that the press was a crucial check on the powers of government, and enshrined freedom of the press in the first amendment along with freedom of speech, religion, petition, and assembly.

For me, seeing this fight that happened before I was even born really drove home the fact that each generation has a responsibility to preserve not just the craft of journalism, but the institution and credibility of the “fourth estate” itself. At The Lewisville Texan Journal, we’re proud to play our small role. As journalists, we’re grateful to stand on the shoulders of giants.

If you haven’t seen “The Post,” I highly recommend it.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Where I feel journalism has failed, is as you mentioned it, has become more concerned with first or best, and trade, quite often, accuracy in the story. After all you can always print a retraction on page 8 next week. Unfortunately, the damage has been done. I am somewhat older than you are and when I studied journalism in school, we were required to be accurate. It was more important to be right, than first. Times apparently have changed. Not to beat you up, I did appreciate you article. It was well written and personal as reviews should be. I only wish news stories were only the facts and not implying how we, the readers should feel about the story. Save those for the movie and book reviews.

    • Paul, we don’t think that first or best should trade accuracy. Ideally you only tell what you know, and refrain from speculation on what you don’t. I think the 24-hour cable news has trained us to expect tidbits of news surrounded by hours of “expert commentary.”

  2. Call me cynical, I think the film and it’s timing is as much propaganda as entertainment.

    The media has harped on and on about Watergate and the “brave” journalists for decades. Where are such folks in these days?

    Maybe the film makers could make films about the absolute decadence and corruption in their seamy industry or in media nowadays? These actors all “know” these tawdry issues and accepted them as part of the price of their careers and wealth.

    There’s plenty of entertainment choices, I’ll not spend time on this ilk.

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