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Katy Burns: Roll on, presses, roll on

  • Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham and Execuctive Editor Ben Bradlee leave U.S. District Court in Washington on June 21, 1971 , happy with Judge Gerhard A. Gesell's ruling the the paper could publish further articles about a Pentagon report on Vietnam. AP



Monitor columnist
Sunday, January 28, 2018

In the end it’s all about the power of the press. Or, literally, the power of the presses. They’ve been the stars of two recent critically acclaimed newspaper movies. Along with, of course, the wonderful First Amendment.

One of the final – and triumphant – moments in The Post, the current Stephen Spielberg film dramatizing the 1971 publication by the Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers, is when the newspaper’s history-making exposé is set in hot type and the powerful stories-high presses rumble to life.

A similar scene was a climactic high point at the end of Spotlight, the 2015 movie celebrating the Boston Globe’s revelatory 2003 series chronicling the clerical sexual abuse of children presided over by the Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese.

In both films, bundles of freshly printed newspapers are swiftly loaded onto trucks and delivered throughout the respective cities. In both films, truth triumphed over those who would stifle it.

As a one-time ink-stained wretch who labored in a now long-gone but once revered big city paper, I remember with awe those clanking linotype machines and huge presses. They were intricately crafted behemoths that filled what seemed to be acres of floor space and were – literally – deafening. People who didn’t have to be there didn’t linger long.

And that dramatic vision of raw power, the printing operation pulsing with life, is a good high point for a movie about newspapering. Because, otherwise, it’s pretty dull stuff. Attending meetings. Reading records and reports. And asking questions, lots of questions. And then writing (hopefully coherent) stories. Hard to dramatize. But vital to democracy.

Take The Post. The subject of the film, at its heart, is whether a government official – in this case, the highest one in America, President Richard Nixon – can stop a newspaper from publishing news he doesn’t like. It’s a weighty question, testing the strength of our constitution’s First Amendment.

And it’s an apt one now, given the fact that our current president seems to hate the press even more than Nixon did. Almost daily he expresses his loathing for legitimate news organizations and does his best to discredit them. Which is why – he makes no secret of it – Spielberg rushed this film through production when Donald Trump was elected. I’m glad he did.

For one thing, it’s a great movie, with riveting performances not only by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks – I think by now we can call them both national treasures – but a score or two of other superb actors who dug into the material they were given.

The bare bones of the story: Someone has copied and leaked, first to the New York Times and then to the Washington Post (and eventually other papers) a great collection of reports, accumulated by the Pentagon, on origins and progress (or lack thereof) of the American war in Vietnam. It is an ugly picture of deception at the highest levels of government through at least four presidencies, and it questioned the foundations of a policy that spilled both American and Vietnamese blood over decades. It is a portrait of a conflict that is ripping America apart.

Various powers in the federal government – including its elected leader, Nixon – don’t want the papers made public. In fact, they want to retrieve the information and keep it from the American people.

The government succeeds in getting a court order restraining the Times from continuing to publish the papers. It was the first time in history that an American news organization had been prevented by a court from publishing news.

The question confronting the people of the Post – including a hotshot editor and a fairly new female publisher still learning how to function in a world run by men who clearly view her as an interloper – is whether they, too, are bound by that restraining order. Or can they – should they – publish?

Oh, and just to make matters more interesting, the publisher is trying to raise money on the stock market to keep the paper alive and growing and was afraid that courting controversy would result in the loss of the company’s lucrative broadcast licenses.

That’s it. One of the two most important scenes – aside from the powerful presses – is probably the saga of a middle-aged, nondescript reporter carrying cardboard cartons of the copied Pentagon Papers back to Washington by plane and taxi. The other is their arrival at the editor’s home where a cadre of experienced reporters sifts through them to dig out the stories. Not exactly high drama.

In the end – of course, or there would be no story or movie – the decision is made: To hell with the nay-saying government bureaucrats and cautious lawyers. We will publish!

And cut to the scene of the mighty presses rumbling into action.

The Post is a terrific movie, filled with suspense even as we in the audience know exactly how it will turn out.

And if Spotlight portrayed an institution – the Boston Globe – battling and ultimately defying another institution, the Catholic Church, to unearth the truth, The Post focuses on a battle even more fundamental. And that is the right – the duty – of a free and vigorous press to question our government, its honesty and its role in our lives.

Plus, it’s just fun to see the amazing Streep inhabit yet another wonderful character, Post publisher Katharine Graham. The Washington Post was her family’s newspaper. Her father was the publisher as she was growing up. And he named her husband as his successor. Kay, as she was called, was reared to be a perfect society wife in Washington.

That all changed when her husband committed suicide and Graham was thrust, with no preparation, into the role of publisher herself. Her command is hesitant at first, as she moves between cocktail parties and meetings with lawyers and brokers. But as the crisis gripping the paper grips her as well, her confidence visibly grows.

And when Graham is ultimately confronted by what seems to be a small battalion of hectoring men who want her just to behave and do what they want, she faces them politely but firmly.

“Gentlemen, this isn’t my father’s newspaper. It isn’t my husband’s newspaper. This is my newspaper.”

There wasn’t a woman in the cineplex who didn’t give at least an interior “whoopee!” for Graham and for the First Amendment. In a ladylike way, of course.

The Post should remind us of the words of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as he concurred in the court’s decision to strike down the government’s attempt to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers:

In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.

Amen!

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)