"Let's go. Let's publish.”
So said Katharine Graham, The Washington Post publisher, on the phone to her editors, making a decision that turned out to have historic consequences for the United States and that elevated her paper to national standing.
In the vein of recent films on journalism like Spotlight and the older and much revered All The President's Men, comes The Post. The historical drama, about the publication of the Pentagon Papers by
The Washington Post in 1971, is directed by Steven Spielberg and features two universal favourites in its lead roles, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
Meryl Streep portrays Katharine “Kay” Graham, the publisher of the paper, alongside Hanks' Bob Bradlee, executive editor. At the centre of the film's narrative is her decision to run the story despite the legal, financial and personal risks of doing so.
The New York Times had originally broken the story that the American government had been lying about the “success” of the Vietnam War. After the Nixon administration got an injunction against the Times because it was “jeopardising national security”, the Washington Post took up the story.
Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower, worked as a military analyst for the RAND corporation, which was then under contract with the Department of Defense. Unlike how Wikileaks works today, Ellsberg had had to slowly but secretly photocopy what later became known as the Pentagon Papers over a period of three months.
Ellsberg had first leaked the classified 7,000-page document, a study of US involvement in the Vietnam War between 1945 and 1968, to New York Times journalist Neil Shaheen. The Times went on to publish sections of the top-secret document before the Nixon administration won a court injunction against further publication. It incriminated the administration as having full knowledge that the war was highly unpopular and futile.
Ellsberg then approached the Post among other newspapers. The national editor of the Post, Ben Bagdikian, flew to Boston to get the documents from Ellsberg, bringing them back to D.C. in a box which he kept beside him on the plane in the next seat. It was, as Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography “Personal History”, an “expense the Post didn't mind paying.” Both the Times and the Post fought the order in court that went on to the Supreme Court and ultimately won.
A woman's battle
Katharine Graham belonged to a wealthy family which owned The Post. Though the heir apparent after her father retired, a woman in charge of the paper was out of the question. Instead, her husband was appointed. Graham only took over the family business following her husband's death by suicide. She was still finding her feet in a boys' club, and faced condescension from her peers and members of her newsroom.
Graham became a role model for young women after her courageous decision to publish, supporting her editor who was pursuing an explosive story when her company was also going public. She battled personal insecurities, sexism, and inexperience in the news industry to preside over a pivotal moment in the newspaper's trajectory.
Graham wrote in “Personal History” that her time at the helm of the Post made her “more aware of women's problems in the workplace and of the need to get more women in the workplace.” This is still the case with male-dominated newsrooms with few females in leadership positions in the industry at large.
In an era of “fake news”
The Post is particularly relevant in an era where the current US president has labeled reporters as “scum” and “dishonest people” and decried reporting critical of him as “fake news”. TIME magazine called the film “an urgent reminder of how much journalism matters.”
Amy Pascal, the producer of the film, had said that after Donald Trump won the US elections, “this movie took on a different urgency. It became even more relevant”. Spielberg and his team purportedly took the decision to shoot and ready the film in a span of only six months.
The Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers set the stage for Watergate and ultimately, the downfall of the Nixon presidency. The Pentagon Papers have since been declassified.
As attacks on press freedom become more commonplace, it is perhaps important to recall what the 1971 verdict in favour of the Times and the Post said. “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 – “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
Though harking back to a nostalgic time for newsrooms filled with smoke, jangling telephones, and clunky presses, the Post demonstrates why journalism matters even today. A free press doing its job can have a profound effect on a nation, such as the recent stories of harassment and abuse faced by women in Hollywood and DC reveal.