On Sunday night, one media industry — Hollywood — will announce whether it is awarding the Oscar for best picture to a movie about another media industry — the press.
Two years after “Spotlight” won the award for its portrayal of the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic church sex abuse scandal, and 41 years after the Watergate saga “All The President’s Men” was nominated for best picture, Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” sends a clear message about the need for news organizations to stand up to governments — even when they are bound up in personal and professional ties to the officials that they cover. It shows Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham battling sexism and The Post itself battling a vindictive president, hostile to the independent press. The movie was made for the age of #MeToo and Donald Trump — literally, since Spielberg fast-tracked the film to complete it in 2017.
As a historical narrative, however, its accomplishments are more fraught. The sumptuous images of Linotype machines and the room-sized printing presses of a pre-digital era capture the material history of the newspaper industry well. As a character study of Graham — as my friend and Post editor Mike Madden pointed out on Twitter — and as a prequel to “All the President’s Men,” it also succeeds. But the film tells the story of the Pentagon Papers as a journalistic coup for The Post, when it was the New York Times that did the bulk of the reporting work, an imbalance for which the film has been criticized.
And while filmmakers have a right to tell any story they want to — that’s part of the First Amendment cause that the Times and The Post fight for in the movie — there is a danger to the collective memory of events in emphasizing The Post’s role in the Pentagon Papers story. The publication of the papers involved clandestine smuggling by defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, months of analysis by the New York Times and a secret team of editors and typesetters — not just a press-time decision by a bold Katharine Graham.
This matters, because movies have an outsized influence on the way that the public remembers historic events. For example, the film “All the President’s Men” has ingrained the idea that Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down President Richard M. Nixon. The story of Woodward and Bernstein is a heroic and inspirational one, and one that I tell every semester in my journalism history classes. But a single-minded focus on their part of the story distorts the history of Watergate by glossing over the Senate Watergate Committee and special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
It’s easy to forget that the last scene of “All the President’s Men” shows Woodward and Bernstein furiously typing away while Nixon’s second inauguration plays on televisions in the newsroom. The president scored a landslide victory despite The Post’s reporting.
“The Post” does acknowledge that the Pentagon Papers were a New York Times story first, though details are elided for the sake of narrative clarity. Early in the film, a copy boy is shown at the door of an otherwise unexplained hotel room, where he receives a manila folder to deliver to the Times newsroom. That hotel room was in the New York Hilton, where then-executive editor Abe Rosenthal had rented a suite of rooms to house a team of writers and editors who could work on the top-secret documents outside the scrutiny of the newsroom. The folder is labeled “Project X,” which is what Rosenthal called the project.
The Times, however, is portrayed more as a competitor to The Post than as the newspaper that took the biggest risk in publishing the Pentagon Papers from the beginning. Rosenthal’s journal makes clear that he and publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger worried that publishing these stories could mean the end of the Times. The paper was, at that time, a more conservative publication both constitutionally and politically, and Rosenthal and Sulzberger struggled with the enormity of so openly challenging the government by publishing the documents.
They had faced legal and political questions about the “national interest” less than 10 years earlier when the paper fought off the threat of regional censorship in Alabama over its reporting on the civil rights movement. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s opinion in Times v. Sullivan declared that criticism of government officials was “the central meaning of the First Amendment.” The case was a moral, legal and philosophical victory for press freedom that saved the Times from censorship and significant monetary damages.
But the Sullivan case had merely set the paper against a racist city commissioner in Montgomery, Ala.; the Pentagon Papers challenged the entire federal government, meaning that an injunction or a federal lawsuit could literally be an existential threat to the paper. According to his journal, Rosenthal had recurring dreams that the Times would cease to exist if it published the documents (and also a nightmare he recounted in which the documents had been forged by the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society and the Times had been tricked into publishing them).
The threat to the “paper of record” was very real, and Rosenthal would likely not have been as smug and confident as he is, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, in the scene where he taunts Graham with a copy of the Times. Even three days into publishing the stories, Rosenthal knew that his beloved Times would be at risk — as it was when the government subsequently asked for an injunction against further publication.
U.S. District Court Judge Murray Gurfein issued a temporary restraining order, and the case — as played out in the final moments of “The Post” — went to the Supreme Court. The Washington Post was enjoined, too, and Meryl Streep’s Graham sits next to Rosenthal and Sulzberger in the movie’s Supreme Court scene. But it was the Times that had done most of the work of securing, analyzing and reporting on the documents.
In short, the publication of the Pentagon Papers was a culmination of journalistic work and legal battles the Times had launched a decade earlier — an important complexity of the real world of journalism that the movie “The Post” ignores.
Another problem is that “The Post” makes publishers into the heroes of journalism. Graham was a heroic publisher. But “The Post” hinges on her making a decision to cast aside her relationship with former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara and go ahead with publishing.
There is very little real journalism in the movie. At one point, Post journalist Ben Bagdikian, acting on a hunch, calls a guy he knew, who turned out to have been the Times’s source, too. It was a great piece of luck and a testament to reporters having cultivated good sources. But all of the moral weight in the movie is on Graham’s shoulders, when all of the real work of gathering and interpretation had already been done by others. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, she wasn’t encouraging incisive, independent reporting — she was only making a decision not to hold it back.
“The Post” does make a compelling, inspiring case for the importance of an independent press in a democracy. And the Supreme Court’s decision in the Pentagon Papers case had two lasting outcomes, as portrayed at the end. The New York Times stayed in business to continue to challenge and critique the government, and The Washington Post, led by an emboldened Graham, rose to be the Times’s equal in shaping the national discourse.
Whether or not “The Post” wins the award for best picture, it will no doubt enter the canon of movies that feed the public understanding about how journalism works, which is not such a bad thing if we take the right lessons from it. Great stories don’t always just fall into the laps of news organizations; they take immense amounts of work. And the best publishers, like Graham, actively support that work.
The press critic A.J. Liebling dedicated one of his books “to the foundation of a school for publishers, failing which, no school of journalism can have meaning.” While “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” are far better at dramatizing the real work of journalism, and will be perennial favorites for journalism professors to show their classes, “The Post” should be required viewing at the Liebling School for Publishers.