After a year of high- and low-level attacks on the press and the First Amendment, there’s plenty to appreciate in Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “The Post,” which some people around here believe should be called “The Times.”
With a focus on the as-yet-untested Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, “The Post” tells the story of how portions of a classified government study about the Vietnam War made their way into her newspaper.
The Post began to run stories based on the top-secret study — which provided evidence that the Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy administrations had lied to the public about the war effort and its chances for success — only after The New York Times published articles quoting from it in summer 1971.
The Nixon administration challenged The Times aggressively, accusing it of violating the Espionage Act and winning a temporary court order that blocked the newspaper from publishing more of what became known as the Pentagon Papers.
As it casts a journalism era of analog technology and smoky newsrooms in an idealistic light, the movie makes the point that leaking to the press can be a principled act — a point that is certainly in order at a time when President Trump and his anti-press supporters equate leaking with treason.
Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine and military analyst, brought the Pentagon Papers to The Times, and later to The Post, motivated by an all-American notion that the nation’s citizens had the right to know more about what was going on half a world away in a war financed by their tax dollars and fought by so many of their children.
Mr. Ellsberg saw it as his patriotic duty to take the documents, which he had painstakingly copied, to the press. As he has said, “Taking an oath as a public servant does not mean keeping secrets or obeying the president — it’s respecting the Constitution.”
“The Post” is also a celebration of the keen judgment and courage of Ms. Graham. Her father granted control of the newspaper to her husband upon his death because “in those days, the only possible heir would have been male,” as she wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “Personal History.”
But when Ms. Graham’s husband died, control fell to her. And, she wrote, “I did try — in some small ways, some larger — to do something about raising the visibility of women and increasing the sensitivity toward matters of particular concern to them.”
That work continues. The women who have bravely shared stories of harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful men this year — whether on film sets or in newsrooms; on factory floors or in congressional offices— stand on Ms. Graham’s shoulders, as do the trailblazing female reporters who drew attention to their plight.
Although occasionally apocryphal, “The Post” captures Ms. Graham’s transformation to towering from timid through her decision to publish the classified documents.
As she inserted herself and her newspaper into a national controversy, Ms. Graham was in the process of taking The Washington Post Company public. A standoff with the federal government could have proved devastating. And, her legal advisers warned, President Nixon could pressure the Federal Communications Commission to strip The Post of its television-station licenses — a dubious stratagem that he went on to attempt during Watergate.
The business dangers that The Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger faced were no less treacherous when he made the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. Being first, he “took on far more risk,” the paper’s in-house counsel at the time, James C. Goodale, now 84, wrote in The Daily Beast.
“It’s as though Hollywood had made a movie about the Times’s triumphant role in Watergate,” Mr. Goodale added.
It is an unfortunate irony that the makers of a film dedicated to the pursuit of truth took dramatic license with Mr. Sulzberger, who died in 2012, in their worthy elevation of Ms. Graham, who died in 2001.
In a line from the movie referring to Mr. Sulzberger’s bold decision, the fictional stand-ins for the Times editor A.M. Rosenthal and his first wife, Ann Marie Burke, tell Ms. Graham that The Times’s publisher took the risk only after his Washington bureau chief, James B. Reston, threatened to print the Pentagon Papers in the Vineyard Gazette, the small Martha’s Vineyard paper he had bought a couple of years earlier. While Mr. Reston did make that remark, Mr. Goodale told me, “I don’t think anybody took him seriously.”
Mr. Sulzberger, who was known as Punch, published the secret study after reading all of its 7,000 pages. He gave the go-ahead despite his very real assessment that it might land him “20 years to life,” as he put it himself, and over his outside counsel’s refusal to defend the paper if it proceeded.
“Punch was absolutely heroic in publishing the Pentagon Papers,” The Times’s lead reporter on the project, Neil Sheehan, 81, told me in a statement. “He was all alone in making his decision. He had the backing of his senior editors like Abe Rosenthal, who was equally courageous. There was a precedent for Kay Graham. Punch had no precedent.”
The more important lesson is that, in both cases, family-led newspapers placed their journalistic missions ahead of business imperatives. And they did so under intense governmental pressure, a reminder of the important role that principled family leadership plays in the news business.
That has particular resonance in The New York Times Building as Arthur Gregg Sulzberger prepares to take the publisher’s reins from his father, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., on New Year’s Day, extending the Ochs-Sulzberger family’s stewardship of the paper to a fifth generation.
The idea of steadfast news leadership should matter beyond The Times’s offices, given Mr. Trump’s threats against the tax status of Amazon, the company founded by Jeff Bezos, who bought The Post in 2013, and denigration of the financial performance of The Times, whose subscriptions and stock price experienced double-digit growth in 2017.
Both media properties have the protection of their owners — a family, in the case of The Times; and a billionaire, in the case of The Post — who are bulwarks against the blind market forces that would have them turn into clickbait-only versions of themselves. The leadership of the Sulzberger family and Mr. Bezos also provides protection against an executive branch that seems all too willing to punish news outlets that don’t adopt the standards of that Trump favorite, “Fox & Friends.”
The president’s other frequent media target, CNN, has no family or billionaire protector at a time when it is at the center of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of its parent company, Time Warner, a deal that the Justice Department has moved to block even as Mr. Trump continues his attacks on the network.
Given all this, “The Post” strikes a fitting end note to a tumultuous year for journalism and democracy. Even the debate over whether the movie unfairly credits The Post for one of The Times’s proudest achievements is fitting.
The competition between the two news organizations — each now much more than a newspaper — has spurred both of them along. It happened in the 1970s and it happened again in 2017, a golden year for investigative reporting.
In deciding in the favor of journalistic freedom in New York Times Co. v. United States, Justice Hugo L. Black wrote in 1971, “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.”
For good measure, he added, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”