Democracy dies in darkness.
The slogan of The Washington Post rings true in Steven Spielberg’s new film about the newspaper and its role in the leaking of the Pentagon Papers.
Forty years later, we have found ourselves in similar situations. President Donald Trump’s remarks on “fake news” and villainizing of the press undermine the First Amendment as well as the court case portrayed in the film, New York Times Co. v. United States. In a time when the president rarely speaks to the press, bars journalists from news organizations he does not like from the White House and creates his own Fake News Awards, it is as important as ever to remember the role of the press in some of the biggest changes in our nation’s history.
The Post does just this. Starring Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, the film follows the story of the Pentagon Papers. On June 13, 1971, The New York Times published the first pages of a damning report on the U.S. government. The report, written under 1967 Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, was a massive 7,000 page write-up detailing the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam and the coverups of at least three presidents. The papers snuck out of the White House by Daniel Ellsberg were given to Times reporter Neil Sheehan in March of that year. In the following months, they sorted through the pages until the first publication in June.
Within a week, the U.S. government forbade the Times from publishing any more of the papers. While the Times was being gagged, the Washington Post reporter Ben Bagdikian tracked down Ellsberg for the Post’s own copy of the Papers. Days after Bagdikian obtained the Papers, the Post printed them under the order and careful consideration of Graham.
While the film has been well-received critically, criticism has been abundant about the film downplays the Times. In an article from Columbia Journalism Review several Times reporters of the age announced their anger that the film focused on the role of the Post rather than their own paper. After all, it was the Times who published the papers first, the Times who received the gag order and the Times whose name is on the court case. The Times even won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story.
But one cannot forget the Times, especially in their role in the Pentagon Papers. One can, however, forget the Post was even involved. If the Times began the revolution with the publication of the Papers, the Post saw it through by continuing to publish the Papers when the U.S. government was ignoring the First Amendment by forbidding the Times from publishing.
As depicted in the film, Graham’s decision to publish the Papers inspired dozens of other smaller newspapers to follow suit. This, and the District Court for the District of Columbia as well as the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit Court upholding Graham’s decision, created an environment in which the U.S. Supreme Court had no choice but to side with the Times.
This monumental court case solidified the rights of the press to act as a safeguard against government corruption within the system and against the American people. However, we find ourselves in a time where our freedoms are being restricted once more.
Since nearly the start of his campaign Trump has waged a war against the media, calling many liberal news outlets “fake news”and going so far as to prevent journalists from attending White House press events. When he announced he would be giving out Fake News Awards, these same organizations were hoping they would be chosen, a solid indicator they must be following in the footsteps of the Post and the Times, protecting not only the freedom of the press, but also the freedom of the American people.
In a stroke of irony, before she was cast as Graham, Streep made a passionate speech advocating for the rights of journalists during last year’s Golden Globe Awards as she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement.
“We need the principle press to hold power to account, to call him [Trump] on the carpet for every outrage,” Streep told her peers. “That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our Constitution so I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re gonna need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”
Though this speech was made only a year ago, she had not yet been cast as Spielberg did not yet have the script in his hands. He would get it a few months later and rush it to production so that only three months would pass between Spielberg reading the script for the first time and the limited release of the film in November.
“I need a motivational purpose to make any movie,” Spielberg told USA Today. “When I read the first draft of the script, this wasn’t something that could wait three years or two years — this was a story I felt we need to tell today.”
The script Spielberg initially saw was written by Liz Hannah and later re-written by Josh Singer.
Hannah defended her script against the Times by saying the script is more of a character study of Graham than anything else, a sentiment that brings forward a central theme in the film.
While The Post primarily serves to highlight the need for the press, it also highlights the sexism that runs rampant throughout the industry.
Graham was the first female publisher of a major newspaper, yet in several scenes she is seen being talked over and largely ignored by groups of white men. These same men, even those on her staff, can be heard saying Graham should not be in charge of the paper even when she is only a few feet away.
These scenes are contrasted with those where she is surrounded by young women looking up at her in admiration. Perhaps the most poignant of these scenes comes at the end of the film as Graham and Bradlee are walking out of the courthouse, largely ignored by the press in favor of the Times. While Graham walks away from these men, she walks directly into a group of young women looking up at her and to her for paving the way for women in the industry.
The sexism of the time portrayed in the film runs not only through the journalism industry, but the film industry as well. In the 1976 film All the President’s Men, Graham is noticeably absent in favor of a focus on Bradlee. While Hanks’ Bradlee rightfully played a large role in The Post, he shares the spotlight with Graham, in a way that was not present in All the President’s Men or in history books.
Though the Times is named in the court case, the revolution and upholding of journalists’ beloved First Amendment could not have been possible without the strong leadership of Graham or her Post, as the so aptly titled film reminds us.
Perhaps Justice Hugo Black said it best in one of the concurring opinions of New York Times Co v. United States, part of which was read in one of the closing scenes of The Post, by a woman in the newsroom no less: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”