By Christopher Sharrett.
I hope that Steven Spielberg’s The Post ignites more interest in the standard media, at a time when blogs and rightist websites, and the repugnant Fox News, are lauded by the Trump Administration and its friends as the only outlets not involved in “fake news.” But that’s about as much as I can say supportive of this film.
The Post is a dramatic account of The Washington Post’s efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers, pilfered from state files by whistleblower and former CIA agent Daniel Ellsberg. The Papers revealed much about the true nature of state ambition regarding the attack on Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, starting with the Truman government. The Papers reveal an extraordinary cynicism that resulted in the murder of over three million people in Asia, and nearly sixty thousand American military who aided in the slaughter.
There is a peculiar problem with this film: The New York Times was the real journalistic hero in this matter (Daniel Ellsberg is given his due, but shunted aside), with the Post – and the rest of the press – playing catch-up. The Washington Post is most famous for the Watergate revelations, but that is a twice-told tale that might these days seem tired (but the full story of that era, with the involvement of state agents like W. Mark Felt steering public attention away from the intelligence agencies, has yet to enjoy a full accounting in cinema, even with the recent Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House).
Given that this is a Spielberg film, it isn’t surprising that there is much heartstring-tugging, with a treacly piano accompanying a teary-eyed Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) as she worries about the financial future of her newspaper while she also ponders journalistic responsibilities with her editor Ben Bradlee (played with a growl by Tom Hanks). Minimal thinking is invited as we enjoy two actors long-since christened the mother and father of “wholesome” American cinema. The Post has also been celebrated for its portrayal of Graham as a “strong woman” who might “empower” women during a time of a war against women’s rights here and elsewhere in the world. Katharine Graham was the daughter of financier extraordinaire Andre Meyer, whose name is graven in stone on New York buildings, including one on the campus of my alma mater, New York University. Could not Graham save The Washington Post out of her own pocket? To be fair, the 1970s saw the beginnings of strife for the printed press, and this film tries to show the urgent need of its preservation, if with a very obvious hand. Also, the name “Phil” is bandied about, Graham’s late husband. Philip Graham was a major player in the media, and also a top CIA hand for many years, involved in propaganda projects.
These days I wave the flag for The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with other demonized outlets like MSNBC and CNN. I support them over the rightist conspiracy lunacy of Trump and his ilk – it is now a case, for me, of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. As a teacher I have been a critic of the media for over forty years. In 1977, Rolling Stone magazine published an article called “The CIA and the Media” by Carl Bernstein (today the piece can be easily accessed on the internet) who, with his partner Bob Woodward, gained for The Washington Post its greatest fame with their Watergate coverage. The article chronicles years of collaboration between virtually all the major media and the CIA, and other organs of state power, coercing the public into embracing official views of the Cold War, and shaping our acceptance of the goals of postwar capitalism along with more specific projects. But this is what the press in America has done since the nation’s inception, the Founders being aristocrats who distrusted the great unwashed. Certain of the Founders, like Alexander Hamilton (who for some reason is the topic of celebration in pop culture these days, a man who was the elitist of the elite), wanted the press to be restricted and closely watched, lest it provide dangerous information for the bewildered herd. Thomas Jefferson, the first populist of a liberal stripe (despite being a slaveowner), said, if it came to it, he would take a free press over government – but he showed a different attitude during his presidency. Around World War I, high-minded thinkers in journalism and public relations – Like Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays – established the idea that they (meaning corporate interests as much as their representatives in state power) know what is good for us, and we should shut up and watch. Such notions have saturated advertising, entertainment, and journalism up to the present.
The point here is that we must be diligent, and read material outside of the press, recognizing our responsibility to educate ourselves, and to discern sheer rubbish like Infowars and the like.
There are points where The Post could do more for us, even given its sugary view of its subject matter. We follow journalist Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk, of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame) as he tries to get confirmations from Ellsberg. Bagdikian became a major critic of the media with his 1980 book The Media Monopoly, revised numerous times until his death in 2016. It reveals corporate control of all that we see, hear, and read, a commonplace perhaps today. Bagdikian’s books have been major sources for media scholars; all this may have been seen irrelevant to the film, but it is tragic that some sort of allusion wasn’t made. He deserves his own film.
Let’s hope that The Post encourages more careful study of the press, recognizing that state power is still the enemy of information, even (especially?) when it affects a “friend of the people” mode, which in its current moment seems utterly ludicrous.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.