by Alvin G. Burstein
It could be argued that words printed on paper are passé and newspapers are a format in the process of becoming extinct. Warren Buffet, the Omaha sage of Wall Street, does not agree. He thinks that, despite the fact that the number of daily newspapers is shrinking, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal will endure because of their gravitas, and that local newspapers have a unique ability to focus on local events.
Spielberg’s new movie The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, joins McCarthy’s 2015 Spotlight as bracing reminders of the impact the press can have.
The latter film documented the role The Boston Globe played in exposing not only the extent of priestly involvement in the sexual exploitation of young children, but also the Church’s role in a cover-up. The Post chronicles the exposure of the United States government’s cover-up of the realities of the war in Vietnam.
In 1950 Daniel Ellsberg was part of a RAND corporation research team sent to Vietnam to study limited warfare. In 1965 he spent two years in that country working for the State Department studying counter-insurgency. In the movie, he is portrayed as being embedded with troops suffering heavy casualties.
When Ellsberg returned to Washington, again at RAND, he joined a team drafting a history of the U. S. political involvement in Vietnam. There he became privy to classified documents describing how administrations from John Kennedy’s to Lyndon Johnson’s recognized that the war was basically unwinnable, a reality that was concealed from the American public. Ellsberg made copies of the documents, sharing them with the NYT. He did so with the realization that he was committing a crime.
In 1971, The Times published an article describing the contents of the so-called Pentagon papers. They were ordered to desist by the U.S. Attorney General, but refused to comply, whereupon the government obtained a court order enjoining them.
The Washington Post, hearing that Ellsberg was on the run in Washington, managed to locate him and obtain copies of the papers. The Post’s editor, Ben Bradlee, broached the notion of publishing them to its owner, Katherine Graham. The decision was fraught for several reasons. Criminal charges might ensue. The paper was in the process of becoming publicly owned, and might lose investors. The Graham family was friends with Secretary of Defense McNamara, deeply implicated in the scandal.
The movie explores the play of these tensions and goes at least a half-step further, hinting at both Graham’s and Bradlee’s susceptibility to being seduced by the appeal of access to the powerful. The movie, too, dramatizes the power of the press in visual terms with a focus on linotyping and huge mechanical presses churning away.
In fact and in the movie, the question of governmental authority versus freedom of the press went to the United States Supreme Court for resolution. Justice Hugo Black’s words served as an epigraph to the movie:
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. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.
These words are particularly apposite in our time.