Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film “The Post” heroizes the role of The Washington Post in publishing the Pentagon Papers — the top-secret history of decision-making in the Vietnam War. It is an alluring tale that celebrates the press as an essential check on an unfettered presidency, tailor made for the Trump era. Yet it also obscures and distorts that history.
By muting the critical role of national security whistleblowing, the film marginalizes both the story of how and why insider information reached the news media and the government’s subsequent efforts to curb the phenomenon. “The Post” may celebrate the journalists who held the powerful accountable, but press freedom is not just about the press — it is also about their sources.
Whistleblowers serve a vital democratic function, conveying information in the public interest from the state to the media. Unlike leakers, they are not anonymous or narrowly political. Although their actions are maligned by high-level government officials — who themselves routinely leak information to shape news agendas, tarnish rivals or float policy ideas — whistleblowers seek to expose and redress systemic wrongdoing and corruption. They play a significant role in checking the abuses of state secrecy.
Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower in the Pentagon Papers case, is relegated to the margins of “The Post.” Caricatured as a zealous, antiwar liberal — a hippie dove masquerading in a hawkish bureaucrat’s cloak — Ellsberg is simply a plot device who sets the stage for the real protagonists: the journalists. He is disparagingly introduced to us by an Army officer commenting on his “long hair,” while his motives are characterized as a form of masculine egotism. Ellsberg is depicted as fretting and anxious, frantically photocopying the documents in a seemingly impulsive act. Ben Bagdikian, the Washington Post journalist who tracks down Ellsberg, comments that insiders who reveal state secrets “have a conscience and an ego.”
This cartoonish depiction not only distorts Ellsberg but also the broader phenomenon of whistleblowing. Such individuals who reveal state secrets are consummate insiders and begin as believers in the cause.
This was the case for Ellsberg, who joined the Marine Corps in 1954, studied decision theory at Harvard, and worked as an analyst at the elite national security think tank Rand that has long advised high-level government officials. Key decision-makers who escalated the Vietnam War, from Robert McNamara to Henry Kissinger, sought his counsel. His access to the papers was possible only because he helped write the study in question.
Driven by a sense of duty and institutional loyalty, Ellsberg first raised concerns internally and then to Congress. Only then did he give the Pentagon Papers to the initially hesitant press. His decision to release the papers was gradual and calculated, motivated less by a narrow political agenda than an evolving faith in a transcendent public interest.
Reducing whistleblowers to stereotypes of left-wing radicalism is part of an ongoing problem: Figures such as Ellsberg are simultaneously heroized and villainized, depending on one’s political beliefs, but never treated as complex historical actors. This framing originated with the Nixon administration’s attempt to publicly vilify Ellsberg — the president told his advisers to “get the son of a b—- in the press” — which contributed to a backlash that helped catapult Ellsberg to celebrity status. Subsequent news coverage perpetuated the stereotype, which is still with us today. Recent films about contemporary whistleblowers, such as “CitizenFour” and “Snowden,” continue to portray whistleblowers as one-dimensional heroes or villains.
In addition to treating Ellsberg in a cartoonish fashion, “The Post” more broadly neglects whistleblowing and its greater historical relevance. Instead, it is an ode to press freedom told through the travails of Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Post who struggles to assert her control and conscience in a patriarchal, masculine industry. The film actually highlights the intimate bonds between influential press figures and politicians, forged through friendships and cocktail parties, that undermined press freedom more subtly and significantly than outright censorship.
Such social relationships had long influenced the coverage of the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign policy more generally. When Graham’s daughter reads the first New York Times reports on the Pentagon Papers in the film, her shock stems from the fact that former defense secretary Robert McNamara and other implicated officials were, she tells her mother, “your people.” “The Post” celebrates Graham’s sacrifices — her willingness to put the truth over the reputation of her friends. But it marginalizes whistleblowing, which is central to the public’s right to know the truth in the first place, making the film’s story of press freedom incomplete.
Over the course of the 20th century, a diverse range of whistleblowers increasingly provided privileged information that the press vehemently fought for the right to publish. Yet while “The Post” climaxes with the Supreme Court decision in favor of the press, it omits the 1973 (mis)trial against Ellsberg and his accomplice Tony Russo for violating the Espionage Act. Collectively, the cases underscored a longer tradition whereby media outlets are free to publish information in the national defense but their sources face prosecution.
And while “The Post” concludes with the infamous White House Plumbers unit ransacking of the Watergate complex, it overlooks the fact that the group was first created to discredit Ellsberg. President Richard Nixon himself viewed attacks on whistleblowers as central to his campaign against press freedom. This omission minimizes the critical role of whistleblowing in both provoking and stemming presidential abuse of power.
This distortion matters.
While the Pentagon Papers and Watergate were a victory for journalists and a check on the imperial presidency, the legality of national security whistleblowing remained unresolved. Following Ellsberg, a wave of former officials emerged as whistleblowers during the 1970s, providing unprecedented insight into the wrongs of the national security state. Stoking public fears, the government insisted on the need for secrecy and evaded questions about the public’s right to know.
New laws and regulations tightened the circulation of national security information. Whistleblowers were put in the legal crosshairs through the enforcement of nondisclosure agreements, the exclusion of individuals with access to classified information from whistleblower protection laws and the courts’ upholding of executive privilege over national security affairs. From Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, subsequent U.S. presidential administrations have used and expanded measures to control national security information in the public realm through the policing of government employees.
The fundamental issues raised by national security whistleblowers such as Ellsberg in the 1970s resurfaced in the post-9/11 era. Although there is a renewed commitment to press freedom as an integral part of national security, the cases of Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden reveal the disproportionate perils still facing whistleblowers.
“The Post” is an inspiring tale of the press facing down a tyrannical presidency, heartening and essential in the current political climate. Yet it ignores the more salient question of the purpose of press freedom. The information on which reporting is based is increasingly shielded from public view, and those who draw back the veil of secrecy are threatened with prosecution and decades in prison. The debate about press freedom and national security requires a deeper conversation about the past, present and future of whistleblowing.