Kind friends, recalling that I had a substantial relationship with the Washington Post as an edit-page columnist, have sought my take on Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, “The Post.” Here it is, for whatever it’s worth.
I have no idea why Spielberg chose the 1971 Pentagon Papers case and its ramifications to frame his journalistic epic. But whatever his intent, it’s a timely parable on Donald Trump’s hostility to the press and to federal judges who challenge his shady operations.
In the background in 1971 was a long-lasting Asian war in which thousands of young Americans were losing their lives, to slight apparent effect. A secret documentary account of the origins of that entanglement, compiled from Pentagon archives, had been leaked to the New York Times by a disillusioned participant. Tom Hanks, who plays the chief Post news editor Ben Bradlee, echoes the old boast that journalism is “a first rough draft of history”; but the Times’ handling of the Pentagon Papers actually shows that even good reporting, when it relies on the quick evaluation of dated documents, serves mainly as a “rough draft” of journalism – prone to the chronic hazards of over- and mis-interpretation.
The result was a dubious impression, substantially exceeding the evidence, that muddle, blunder and fibbing about Vietnam by a succession of administrations was driven by willful deception.
“The Post” does, however, serve up an authentic version of journalistic reality. This is especially true of Meryl Streep’s subtle impersonation of Katherine Graham, whom I knew and admired. When some five years after the story told in the movie she and I met at the Washington dinner table of mutual friends, she told a funny and disarming story about herself. Self-importance was not her style. Facing great commercial risk as her company commenced public trading, with Nixon’s thugs also seeking to undercut the Post’s TV licenses, “Katherine,” as she was called by her closest associates, seeks footing in a man’s world after the tragic suicide of her husband Phil, to whom her father had bequeathed the paper. Tom Hanks’s portrait of an eager-beaver Ben Bradlee is equally lifelike. I knew him also and with his ever-genial permission, even put him in a short story.
But others in the Post’s editorial department with whom I worked closely, Phil Geyelin and Meg Greenfield, are mere ghostly sketches. And their minor role leaves out a vital part of the decision to ignore a court injunction. That decision must be made by news executives, thus soft-pedaling the role of my own branch of the trade. They decide; we commentators cheer.
But cheer we must, for the familiar old devices of “hot type,” the linotype machines and other apparatuses we senior journalists so fondly remember, are inspiring. The movie dramatizes a mortal collision between the Nixon regime and two great newspapers who deemed it their duty to monitor national policies and thus to serve the sovereign people rather than the temporary occupants of the White House. Orderly government clashes with government by and with the consent of the governed; and that clash of two essential principles is the noise of freedom.
Few presidents have loved the press; many have regarded it as a nuisance; far fewer have sought to undermine or destroy it. But the latter few includes Nixon and his spiritual heir Donald Trump. Trump, who unlike Nixon also has a childish understanding of the judicial function, is now stacking the federal bench with ideological toadies. In a future collision the courts may not serve the First Amendment as they did in 1971.
Much is made in “The Post” of Justice Black’s concurrence in the Supreme Court decision that freed the Times and the Post from the threat of contempt. It is a classic warning against the unintended exposure of democracies to “foreign shot and shell.” He was assisted by his clerk, Bob Spearman, a former UNC student body president and the son of Walter Spearman, who as a professor at Chapel Hill was a beloved adviser to generations of N.C. newspapermen. I like to think that the Spearman influence brought a dose of Tar Heel horse sense to the outcome of the Pentagon Papers case and so to Spielberg’s splendid movie.
Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill, the former editorial page editor for the Washington Star and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing, is a contributing columnist.