"The Post" inspires, offers hope

January 4, 2018 01:30

L-R, Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, director Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee on the set of “The Post.”

Something remarkable happened on New Year’s Day when I was in a movie theater watching “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s new film about The Washington Post’s struggle to compete with The New York Times over the 1971 publication of news stories related to the Pentagon Papers.
During a pivotal scene, Post publisher Katharine Graham, portrayed by Meryl Streep, must decide whether to allow editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, to publish the top secret documents.
It was an agonizing decision.
A judge had just issued an injunction prohibiting the Times from publishing further stories about the papers. (It was the Times, of course, that broke the story after then-military analyst Daniel Ellsberg illegally leaked the papers, which revealed decades of government lies about the Vietnam War.) Her attorneys had warned her and Bradlee they could go to prison if they published. The Post had just launched an IPO and many on her board of directors were pressuring her not to publish, fearing investor backlash.
Despite all of that, Graham, of course, decided to publish. When Streep, as Graham, uttered the words, applause broke out in the theater. A few people even cheered!
Granted, I was in New York City, more specifically in a neighborhood that some derisively call “the People’s Republic of the Upper West Side” of Manhattan. It is not a place where many people tend to believe President Trump’s claims of “fake news” and that journalists are the “enemy of the American people.”
Still, the moment was both visceral for the audience and tremendously inspiring for me, given the fact I spend most of my waking hours defending the First Amendment against attacks that increasingly manifest as obstruction, harassment, threats, arrests and assaults against journalists who are merely attempting to perform their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.
Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in “The Post.” Photo: Niko Tavernise. Used by permission.
The audience reaction in that moment, and the film itself, cleansed my emotional palate after the tumultuous year for journalism that 2017 had been. After all, it was a year in which, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, at least 32 journalists were arrested and at least 39 were physically assaulted.
If I had my druthers, everyone in America would see “The Post,” which opens in cities nationwide January 12. It is, in my view, the best film about journalism and the importance of holding the powerful accountable since “All the President’s Men” nearly 42 years ago, which dealt with the Post’s coverage of Watergate.
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in “The Post.” Photo: Niko Tavernise. Used by permission.
Also if I had my druthers, everyone in America would watch a video posted on Twitter December 31 by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), a conservative lawmaker from a deep red state who, in his own way, defended the First Amendment.
I’d like to believe that the inspirational message of “The Post” and the cautionary note in Sen. Sasse’s video are harbingers of a new “morning in America” moment for the Fourth Estate. Unfortunately, however, tweets such as this are still emanating from the White House:

I am often asked how all of this is going to end. I always say that the antagonism targeting responsible journalism is going to get much worse in the short term. In the long run, though, the optimist in me feels as though whenever whatever “this” is finally does end, there will be a resurgence of public trust and confidence in the news media even greater than what we saw in the days following Watergate, when journalism schools were brimming with future reporters and photojournalists eager to do their part to serve the public by pursuing what Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
That, my colleagues, will also be something remarkable.