“The Post” and the times

The movie of the moment seems to be “The Post,” a dramatic retelling of the weeks in June 1971 when the Washington Post raced to catch up with The New York Times, which first published portions of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study charting America’s path to war in Vietnam, before the newspaper was restrained by a federal judge from further publication. The Post obtained its own set of the documents from the Times’ source Daniel Ellsberg, began independently publishing their contents, and was similarly ordered to cease and desist. The newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 against the government.

Case closed. Roll the presses—and the cameras.

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The Pulitzer went to the Times for its courageous decision to publish first. But the Oscar may go to “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film starring Meryl Street as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee.  Hollywood’s decision to make a movie about the paper that got scooped has steamed many New York Times writers, editors and lawyers, past and present.  Yet, dramatically, it was no contest:  Times publisher “Punch” Sulzberger and executive editor Abe Rosenthal versus the profane and colorful Bradlee and the deer-in-the-headlights Kay Graham, the often shy and insecure accidental publisher, a woman raised to be deferential to men.

On Christmas night, when POTUS was disingenuously claiming credit for reintroducing “Merry Christmas” into the lexicon (Barack Obama used the same words every year), we went to see the film.  This was not “Spotlight,” which focused on the grunt reporters, or “All the President’s Men,” the Woodward-and-Bernstein procedural thriller. This was above all the story of the shy Kay Graham emerging from her pre-feminist cocoon, and her close working relationship with Bradlee, whom she had hired to light a fire in the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time newspaper.

I was not a player in this drama, but I was working at the Post during this brief period, covering mostly housing and urban renewal in the District of Columbia, and I knew all the players. Ben Bagdikian, who obtained the Post’s copies of the papers, was national editor and went on to be Post ombudsman, a position regrettably abolished in March 2013. Bagdikian later wrote about the dangers of corporate consolidation in the media and taught journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, where he also served a graduate school dean.

I do recall the excitement over the publication of the papers and then the Supreme Court victory, but my memories are not vivid. The Pentagon Papers drama was in fact compressed and did not permeate the newsroom, as depicted in the film for dramatic effect, unlike Watergate, which stretched on for months and even years as the paper unspooled the criminal conspiracy incrementally, one Woodward-and-Bernstein story after another.

Mostly, Spielberg and company got it right, but with a few exceptions.  In the film, Bradlee sends an “intern” to New York to find out what Times reporter Neil Sheehan was up to; which didn’t happen. Moreover, in 1971, there were no newsroom “interns.” There were copy aides, whose main task was to run “copy” between the desks of reporters and editors. At my former employer, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, they were called copy boys; there were few if any “copy girls.” Reporters would shout out “Boy!” to signal their copy was ready to be carried across the room; more progressive younger reporters simply yelled “Copy!”

In “The Post,” the women at a dinner party retire to a sitting room while the men remain to discuss important matters, and one of the women admires Kay Graham for having a “day job,” a phrase never heard then.  Kay Graham’s best female friend, Meg Greenfield, was then deputy editorial page editor and in the film a prominent newsroom figure, even taking a call from the Supreme Court reporter phoning in the tribunal’s decision. While editorial writers resided in a warren of offices on the same floor, they were not in the newsroom.  Truth be told, Mary Lou Beatty, then one of the very few women who held a high newsroom slot, and not Meg Greenfield, took the call.

These are admittedly nitpicks.  Overall, the film gets it right, and, Times complaints to the contrary, it does not slight the “All the News That’s Fit to Print” institution.  But what is one to make of all the attention and accolades showered on “The Post” in the Age of Trump?

The Timeliness of “The Post”

Surely, there is a certain wistfulness, a yearning for a time when truth won out, when newspapers were widely respected as the messengers who delivered the facts, even if sometimes imperfectly, and not condemned as purveyors of “fake news.”  The self-congratulation this evokes is not misplaced but it does draw a sharp contrast with the current administration and the times.

Even as Nixon railed against the papers, privately, wonderfully woven into the film with the sound tracks from actual presidential tapes, publicly at least, he left it largely to his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, to disparage the press as the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” a wonderful bit of alliteration attributed to White House speechwriter Bill Safire, later a columnist on politics and on the use of language for – ironically – The New York Times.

Given the main characters in the film, it is not surprising that the screenwriters could come up with many colorful quotes.  But, to me, the best quote came not from Bradlee, Graham, Bagdikian or Ellsberg but from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, communicated breathlessly to the newsroom by the Greenfield character from the Post’s Supreme Court reporter who phoned it in:  Black, with Justice William O. Douglas concurring, is quoted as attributing to the Founding Fathers the “essential role of a free press…to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Not quoted in the film were his additional words:

“In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly.  The dominant purpose of the first amendment was to prohibit the widespread practice of governmental suppression of embarrassing information.”  In publishing the Pentagon Papers, he wrote, “the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

No one would argue that “the news” is being suppressed in Trumpian times.  What is happening is in a way more insidious, a concerted campaign at the highest levels to discredit the messenger and to substitute “alternative facts” for actual facts.  Nonetheless, good reporting by both the Post and Times continues to inform the public.

Despite the demagogue’s repeated lies and denials, doing what the Founders envisioned is not Mission Impossible. It is Mission Essential, and it must go forward, now more than ever.


  1. rebecca shaw on December 28, 2017 at 8:38 am


  2. John Lally on December 28, 2017 at 9:13 am

    As I told all that worked with me or I worked for, “Never do or say anything that you cannot tell the Washington Post or your mother.”

  3. Michael Putzel on December 28, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Gene, thanks for your excellent fact-checking of the film, which elevates Neil Sheehan from his well-deserved status as a superb reporter and writer to something like a superhero, at least in the mind of Ben Bradlee. It’s too bad that Mary Lou Beatty’s role got melded into Meg Greenfield’s. Beatty rose a long way in a male-dominated newsroom to be in position to take that call. It’s frightening to think how today’s Supreme Court would come down on the case.

  4. Alice Bonner on December 28, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    Thanks, for the good Memory Lane stroll, Gene. As one of the “Pentagon Papers”-era copy aides, allow me to add that we also ran galleys from the newsroom down to the more thrilling press floor. In that closing era of hot-lead typesetting, the thunder of giant press machinery seemed like the true heart of the newspaper. I take pride in having been a rare GIRL among Post copy aides & one of the few to grow from that job into reporting and editing roles there.

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