At a climactic moment in Steven Spielberg’s recently released movie “The Post,” actor Tom Hanks — portraying Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee — poses the question at the heart of the film: “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
Bradlee was talking about the Pentagon Papers. It was June 1971, about the time I was graduating from Seattle University with a degree in journalism, that the U.S. Supreme made its landmark ruling in the Pentagon Papers case. It was a turning point in American history, and an affirmation of journalism’s rights and responsibilities to defend our most basic freedoms.
The tense days leading up to that decision are relived in “The Post,” the inside story of how The Washington Post grappled with daunting questions about whether to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. At that time, the New York Times had already printed excerpts, and had been enjoined from printing more by a court order. It was that issue the Supreme Court was asked to decide.
The core question was whether the Times and Post would be allowed to print, without “prior restraint,” the secret history of United States involvement in Vietnam. The classified documents, which revealed decades of bad decision-making and blatant deception by the American government, had been leaked to the newspapers. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court refused to block the papers’ publication.
The Pentagon Papers battle — between a free press and a paranoid, repressive White House (sound familiar?) — was the prelude to the monumental Watergate scandal.
Like “All the President’s Men” more than 40 years earlier, “The Post” is already an iconic film for American journalists. But we didn’t come out of the nation’s theaters cheering and exchanging high-fives. Rather, we reflected on the courage and resolve, under the credible threat of severe consequences, required of the Post’s leadership when faced with an issue that could have gutted the Constitution.
For most viewers, “The Post” is a superbly crafted, well-acted, high-energy drama. I probably watched the film differently than most people, from the perspective of longtime immersion in the world of journalism. If “The Post” is not your world, you may wonder: How real is it? How authentic? How visceral?
Very, very and very. It was like time travel for me. The emotional impact was as powerful as the entertainment value. I experienced the movie’s events just as those major players experienced it — real news happening in real time, in the face of immutable deadlines while standing in front of the government steamroller, with nothing but a copy of the Constitution for protection.
The people portrayed in “The Post” were walking the highest tightrope in the tent without a net, risking everything for principle and posterity. Every day, in newsrooms around the world, lesser-known newspeople are making decisions that are similarly difficult, if not as politically and historically portentous. Cumulatively, those decisions add up to freedom of the press as it is practiced in the United States. That freedom would be unimaginably compromised if “prior restraint” had prevailed.
“The Post” is also about the evolution of Washington Post owner Katherine Graham from a disinterested socialite who was used to doing whatever the men around her told her was right, to a decisive, engaged leader fully beginning to understand her own abilities to exercise power in good ways. In that respect alone, “The Post” is noteworthy and inspirational.
Even good movies invite quibbles. In the journalism community, one criticism is that “The Post” doesn’t give The New York Times due credit for first publishing the Pentagon Papers and assuming the professional and political risks that went along with that bold action. I suspect that matters little to non-journalists, and the take-away is what’s most important anyway.
“The Post” is a contemporary reminder of what’s at stake when the government attacks the press out of self-preservation, arrogance and disdain for its citizens. At a crucial moment in 1971, the right thing happened. Can we count on that again? I would like to think so. But I fear that we may once again face some terrible threats to our freedoms. Judges may acquiesce to a bullying, threatening administration. Publishers, desperate to keep their newspapers alive, may back away from the battle.
In another pivotal “Post” scene, Bradlee/Hanks laments: “The way they lied … those days have to be over.”
Would that they were.