When the News Was True: The Post

By Bobbie Kirkhart

News­pa­pers always make good movies: the dare-dev­il reporter, the over­achiev­ing assis­tant, and the crusty edi­tor up against the pow­er of a dis­hon­est gov­ern­ment. There is won­der­ful sym­bol­ism in the heavy lead type spelling out a scan­dal and the broad sheets of newsprint rolling off the press­es to cov­er the nation. The audi­ence is assured that the truth will come out.

The pub­li­ca­tion of the Pen­ta­gon Papers is a per­fect cru­sad­ing news­pa­per sto­ry. It starts with the intel­lec­tu­al, once hawk­ish, Marine vet­er­an steal­ing and pho­to­copy­ing secret papers and giv­ing them to The New York Times for pub­li­ca­tion, reveal­ing 30 years of the gov­ern­ment mis­lead­ing the pop­u­lace about the Viet­nam War. The Post, direct­ed by Steven Spiel­berg, begins in Chap­ter 2, with edi­tor Ben Bradlee (Tom Han­ks) frus­trat­ed and embar­rassed by hav­ing been scooped, once again, by The Times. When the gov­ern­ment gets an injunc­tion, bar­ring The Times from fur­ther pub­li­ca­tion, The Post, in the words of Bradlee, is “in the game.”

It isn’t the only game The Post is play­ing, how­ev­er. The com­pa­ny is cash poor and gen­er­at­ing lit­tle prof­it. In order to raise the cap­i­tal they need for vital improve­ments, pub­lish­er Kather­ine Gra­ham (Meryl Streep) and her advi­sors decide to offer stock to the pub­lic. She is told that some poten­tial investors are reluc­tant because a woman is in charge. If the Pen­ta­gon Papers are pub­lished, the risk might height­en; the stock price might be depressed; and in a worst-case sce­nario, the sale might be can­celled. The gov­ern­ment is threat­en­ing to sue. Gra­ham and Bradlee could be indict­ed; assets are pos­si­bly in per­il; and the future of the com­pa­ny is hang­ing in the bal­ance. The fact that these high­ly risky oppor­tu­ni­ties come at the same time makes for good dra­ma and fas­ci­nat­ing history.

Gra­ham has grown up with The Post and under­stands the news busi­ness well. Her father left the paper to her hus­band Phil, who had everyone’s respect as a bril­liant pub­lish­er. Kather­ine didn’t object; that was the way things were done in those days. She was, more than any­thing, a socialite, a role she did not sur­ren­der when she took over the paper after Phil’s sui­cide. She felt con­fi­dent in her office off the news room, but much less so in the board room, where she was the only woman sit­ting with 21 men who did not give her the respect and atten­tion a pub­lish­er might expect to get. Nev­er­the­less, the exis­ten­tial deci­sion of whether to run the sto­ry would ulti­mate­ly be Graham’s, “a woman,” Streep said in an inter­view, “who didn’t think she belonged in her job.”

This is his­to­ry – not a doc­u­men­tary – so we know how it ends. Some details are changed, and the time line is adjust­ed for a bet­ter flow. Yet, the movie does not take the usu­al lib­er­ties with the facts that Hol­ly­wood is infa­mous for. It looks and sounds and is much like it real­ly was, and it was a dif­fer­ent time; per­haps – in the world of news – a bet­ter time. It brings us back to a day when Amer­i­cans got the news from news­pa­pers, print­ed by a heavy lead alloy on broad sheets. Twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can news­pa­pers told the truth, not invari­ably, but con­sis­tent­ly enough that we believed what we read. We didn’t talk of ‘fake news’ or ‘alter­na­tive facts’.

It also brings us to that time when women learned that they can demand respect. Kather­ine Gra­ham was born to pow­er, but it took courage for her to claim that birthright.

If you are inter­est­ed in the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure on Gra­ham, here’s an excel­lent arti­cle on her strug­gle to the top of the ladder.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al and of Athe­ists Unit­ed. She is a founder and past vice pres­i­dent of the Sec­u­lar Coali­tion for Amer­i­ca. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.