The brilliant film in theaters now, “The Post,” obviously couldn’t be more timely, showing how a muscular free press can and must confront corrupt power in high public places, such as the White House.
It is about the Washington Post’s struggle against not one but two powerful forces to publish the explosive Pentagon Papers, the thousands of leaked top secret internal Pentagon documents detailing the years of covert and other U.S. dirty tricks in Vietnam and internal assessments of the U.S.’s inability to win that horrible war.
Steven Spielberg’s tour de force movie shows the personal pressures on the Post’s Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, and owner, Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, that they confronted in their ultimate decision to publish the documents in June 1971. The public revelations were critical for bringing the protracted war to an end after more than 50,000 young Americans lives were lost.
The focus of the film’s attention is on the pressures brought by the Nixon White House and the Pentagon against publishing the papers, going to court, charging the New York Times and Post with espionage, that is, high treason, only to have swift action by the U.S. Supreme Court side with the newspapers by a 6-3 vote.
But to this newspaperman there is another focus referenced in the film that must also be recognized for its censorship pressure, one that has played a more insidious ongoing role in the decline of journalism in America, more generally, from that time forward. That is, Wall Street.
The backdrop to the Pentagon Papers’ expose, as shown in the film, was the decision by the Post to take the newspaper public, to put it on the Wall Street exchanges in an effort to raise significant new money to expand its reach and influence.
The minute that was done, the Post and its leadership encountered a different and more dogged kind of censorship pressure that has not let up to this day.
It is illustrated in the film by the legal and investment counselors who caution Graham (Streep) against running the Pentagon Papers on grounds that it would deter investors, who might sell their shares and drive the value of the paper down.
Will the newspaper be able to provide the kind of return on investment that these shareholders require? To them, this was the only question that mattered.
In the film, even before the public offering went out, financial advisors to Graham convinced her to pare back the value of the initial offering to make it more attractive. Going with a lower price, Graham noted, would lose the company the equivalent of more than 30 reporters’ salaries.
The painful point of that observation is that investor pressure for the kind of returns they want can decimate the quality of a product. Only interested in the short term, these investors, indeed, did emasculate the Post over time, and all the major print newspapers in the entire nation.
These investors care only about the health of their portfolios, and not a hoot about the long term viability of a news organization.
In the case of the Post, the result over time has been the closing of regional bureaus overseas and around the D.C. Metro area, and decisions to downsize the size and reach of the paper.
Wall Street’s greed has done more to destroy the news business in the U.S. than anything else. Don’t blame the Internet or TV. They’re factors but not the decisive ones.
Otherwise, the film is about true events that all occurred within one month, June 1971, when the Times began on June 13 publishing articles based on 43 volumes of the papers that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in February.
When the Times was blocked by government injunction, more of the papers leaked by Ellsberg came into the hands of the Post’s Bradlee and Graham who made the decisive decision to publish them. Before the month was out, the Supreme Court came down with its ruling in their defense.
It was one year later, in June 1972, that the Watergate breakin happened that resulted in the resignation of Nixon by August 1974.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected].