“The Post” is a double feature, of sorts.
Its crisp attention to period detail, the centrality of the Vietnam War and its emphasis on the constitutional consequences of the Washington Post publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers sets Steven Spielberg’s splendid film firmly in 1971.
But “The Post,” which opened locally on Friday, also works within a current context, considering today’s press-presidential tensions amid the timeless necessity of a free and unfettered press.
Indeed, moviegoers may find themselves cheering yesteryear’s Post publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee (Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Academy Award-worthy again) when they publish the Pentagon Papers despite intense pressure from the White House and Wall Street, just as they root for today’s Post stewards — owner Jeff Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron — to have the same kind of guts.
So far they’ve been unblinking. Bezos has backed the Post by investing in Baron’s newsroom, which is delivering journalism like last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporting “that created a model for transparent journalism in political campaign coverage while casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities.”
In Washington and beyond — say, in Birmingham, Ala., where the Post exposed Roy Moore’s past — the paper continues to shed sunlight on shady politics. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Post posits, confident in its mission and business model.
That marketing mantra was given a tongue-in-cheek check by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, quoted during a panel discussion last year as saying, “I love our competition with the Washington Post. I think it’s great. But I actually think their slogan — Marty Baron, please forgive me for saying this — sounds like the next Batman movie.”
Maybe so (although actually it’s Superman and Spiderman who work at newspapers). In real life, however, some super heroic efforts — as well as keen competition — have delivered a vigorous accounting of the Trump administration despite withering criticism from President Donald Trump himself.
As for the competition, Baquet has said, “competition is the least examined motivation in American journalism.”
It is examined in “The Post,” however, as Bradlee, battling the Times, seems as focused on the Gray Lady as on the White House. And as accurately pointed out in the movie, the New York Times had the Pentagon Papers story first, but its exclusive expose was halted by a court order. Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine whose fidelity to the truth led him to leak the Pentagon Papers, then turned to the Post, which published portions after Graham’s gritty decision.
While Graham’s professional and personal courage is rightly highlighted in “The Post,” the fortitude from then-New York Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger and managing editor A.M. Rosenthal deserves distinction, too. Indeed, Spielberg could have turned his narrative northward and entitled it “The Times” and made as compelling a film.
Another potential attempt at prior restraint from an insecure White House happened last week when Trump’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to the publisher and author of “Fire and Fury,” the new book that has caused just that.
Author Michael Wolff’s tome may not reflect the Times’ or the Post’s professional standards, but the threat of legal action, according to Bob Bauer, who was White House counsel to former President Barack Obama, “was grossly inconsistent with the responsible conduct of his office.” Writing for the Brookings Institution-affiliated Lawfare blog, Bauer added: “Analogies to the Nixon administration suit to block publication of the Pentagon Papers are, therefore, off the mark. Richard Nixon’s motives may [have] been dangerously mixed and the choice he made profoundly misguided, but he would insist that he was taking legal action in the long-term national interest. Donald Trump’s call to his lawyers was not about official business: it was personal, and the difference between the two eludes him.”
Actually, a lot of Trump’s criticism of the press seems personal, like his recent tweet announcing “THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR.” The “awards,” now delayed, are just his latest attack on the media, a record that earned him his own dubious achievement from the Committee to Protect Journalists: the “winner” in “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom.”
The CPJ has tracked nearly 1,000 tweets critical of the press since Trump announced his candidacy, including many targeting both the Post and the Times. But Trump has been wrong from a journalistic and a business perspective about both papers. Indeed, it’s not “the failing New York Times,” since subscriptions and revenue have risen, just as they have for the Post since Trump’s triumph in 2016.
The president presiding during the Pentagon Papers showdown had hatred for the press, too. And, in fact, Nixon is a character in “The Post.” But he’s not portrayed by an A-lister like Hanks, but by himself, through archival audio recordings of his phone calls. His harsh words do not age well, and it’s likely that Trump’s tweets about “fake news,” his labeling of libel laws “a sham and a disgrace” and other hostility to the news media will similarly seem Nixonian, especially since they came when the U.S. should be a beacon of press protection and freedom.
The characters in and the character of those portrayed in “The Post” do age well, and for the most part, the Post, the Times, and other reputable news organizations are living up to this compelling legacy.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.