Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “The Post” recreates the critical days in 1971 when the US government tried to prohibit the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing a secret Pentagon investigation which found that Vietnam was a lost cause and showed that successive administrations had lied to the people about the war. The film is an ode to press freedom. It should also, however, be seen as highlighting something just as important which passes almost without comment: the crucial role of an independent judiciary in upholding the Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States and lower courts found insufficient cause to prevent publication of the Pentagon Papers, allowing the people to be informed, putting a check on government excess and providing countless young people around the globe with the inspiration to pursue journalism as a calling.
The film is especially relevant today, as the press as we know it fights for its life even as its role becomes more necessary than ever. It also shows how different today’s world is from that of 1971 and 1974, when the Pentagon Papers put the government on notice and then the Post’s investigation of the Watergate scandal played a direct role in President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Today, stricter laws, latent or manifest partisanship in many courts, political and business concerns of major media owners and the fragmentation of the influence, income and authority of the so-called mainstream media make the responsibility of journalists – publication – ever more difficult to fulfill.
“The Post” has been criticized (justly, in my mind) for presenting the New York Times as almost coincidental in the Pentagon Papers case, for the sake of focusing on the dramatic choice faced by Washington Post owner Katharine Graham, who had to risk her company to support the principle of press freedom. However, it also renews interest in the Pentagon Papers and stresses the importance of their publication. Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post who pushed Graham to publish the Pentagon Papers, and was later deified for his and the paper’s role in the Watergate scandal, was always clear on the issue.
“I think maybe the Pentagon Papers was more important than Watergate in standing up to government and not letting government get away with things. But Watergate was a sexy story,” Bradlee commented in an interview with Kathimerini in Athens in 2004. The New York Times was first to publish documents from the Pentagon Papers, with the Washington Post a close second, getting hold of the documents from the same source and continuing to publish when a court stopped the Times temporarily. This case, along with Watergate, confirmed the positive power of a free press that the United States’ founders had looked toward in the First Amendment of the Constitution. They reaffirmed the press’s role as a check on state power – the legislature, the executive, the judiciary. Bradlee’s comment, many years after the events of the early 70s, is significant, giving prominence to a case in which his newspaper shared the stage with the New York Times, ahead of Watergate, where the Post was on its own.
The Pentagon Papers and Watergate proved that the democratic checks and balances could function. The road was not easy and a positive outcome was not guaranteed. In the Pentagon Papers case, the Supreme Court decided by 6-3 votes, with justices expressing strong differences. The court ruled that publishing secret documents could damage national security but that in this case the government had not proved this would occur. In Watergate, the special counsel who undertook to investigate the issue was fired by Nixon, with the reaction to this leading directly to his forced resignation.
Today President Donald Trump is in a continual clash with news media that do not ascribe to his narrative, while a special counsel is investigating the extent of Russian interference in his election. Spielberg put other projects on hold as he rushed to produce “The Post.” “The level of urgency to make the movie was because of the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press and labeling the truth as fake if it suited them,” the director said in an interview with the Guardian. “I deeply resented the hashtag ‘alternative facts,’ because I’m a believer in only one truth, which is the objective truth.”
This brings us to the great difference between our time and the heyday of the press’s credibility and influence: Today it is not a given that courts will support the right to publish, as the executive power’s legal arsenal is brimming with weapons; furthermore, many citizens no longer seem to believe in an “objective truth.” Whether those who believe in the necessity of a free press like it or not, the fragmentation of news sources, with little or no control over what they are producing, along with a climate of intense partisanship, have resulted in many people not believing what they read or see if it does not comply with what they already believe. Trump is living proof – he may play fast and loose with the truth without this seeming to diminish him in the eyes of his supporters.
Today’s threats to the press arose quickly and inexorably. They were a rumble on the horizon when Bill Keller, who had just been appointed executive editor of the New York Times in 2003, spoke with Kathimerini’s K magazine. In his opinion, a greater threat than partisanship – which at that time was erupting in the United States with the rise of Fox News – was oversimplification. “I am afraid that journalism will give up its basic duty, which is to explain the complexity of events, of politics and decisions,” he said. (The comment is translated from the Greek translation of the interview.)
Today, partisanship and oversimplification dominate to such an extent that even when the press does perform its role, which to a very great extent it does, the overarching danger is that the other institutions, as well as the citizens, do not care to the extent that they should. “The Post” is a celebration of the positive power of a free press. It also shows how much is at stake today.