Steven Spielberg’s latest drama, The Post, may be a celebration of the free press, but in the age of “fake news” it feels more like an attempt to glorify the press rather than focus on its habit of misrepresentation. The Post tells the story of the The Washington Post and its publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The Pentagon Papers (as they came to be called) was a series of documents detailing the extent of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Upon learning of the atrocities of the war, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg secretly copied and leaked the documents to the press in the hopes that the public would be made aware of the truth.
Kay Graham (portrayed by Meryl Streep in Spielberg’s film) was the acting publisher of The Washington Post at the time. She inherited the role of sole proprietor following her husband’s untimely death by suicide. Graham not only faced a board of all-male stock holders who were ready to oust her at any moment, but also a more hostile-than-friendly editor named Ben Bradlee (portrayed by Tom Hanks), who reportedly informed her that he’d give his left nut to run the Post, himself. Shortly after Graham came into her new position, Martin Weil (Better Call Saul‘s Bob Odenkirk) was sent to meet with Ellsberg to collect the top secret documents in Boston and transport them safely back to Washington.
Upon their acquisition of the Pentagon Papers, Graham, Bradlee, and the staff of the Washington Post received a federal restraining order, warning them against publishing the documents under threat of Contempt. When Graham decided to publish anyway, the case went to the Supreme Court. In a landmark case, the Court ruled 6-3 on June 30, 1971 that the Washington Post had the right to publish the Papers. Just days before the case went to trial, Daniel Ellsberg turned himself into authorities. He was charged with conspiracy against the federal government and theft, facing a maximum penalty of 115 years; however, due to the damning evidence provided by the documents he leaked, he was cleared of all charges in May 1973.
The Post is a good movie. It’s reflects, through our own history, on our present political and social situation; it offers commentary on the position of the press and our First Amendment rights; Streep’s character represents the ongoing Feminist Movement of the 1970s that we are still experiencing today with equal pay and sexual harassment in the workplace; and the plot poses the question of law versus morality. The point The Post perhaps fails to consider, however, is the fact that the same scenario is treated entirely different in our post-9/11 world.
Would Edward Snowden be cleared of all charges against him, given the evidence he, himself, provided to the press, and considering the fact that neither the Patriot Act or the War on Terror were a thing in 1971? Would the press win such a Supreme Court case today? Given the obvious political bias of the corporate media and “fake news” in the age of Trump, would the general public believe it? And what would politicians on the Hill, both republican and democrat alike, say about it?
When Snowden released classified information to Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, exposing extremely illegal and immoral activity on the part of the US government, he was automatically deemed a traitor. No one, neither reporter or politician, acknowledged the history of the Posts 6-3-vote victory in the Supreme Court ruling that the paper had the right to publish the damning Top Secret Pentagon Papers. No one even mentioned the fact that Daniel Ellsberg was cleared of all charges filed against him for leaking the Papers by the federal government. Again, we must take into account the fact that Snowden fled the country and that the Patriot Act was not a law in 1971, but the question remains, would the Supreme Court rule in favor of Snowden, especially in today’s climate, and would the Court actually go so far as to try the government for the evidence Snowden has presented to the public?
Chelsea Manning released 750,000 classified documents regarding military and government activities and was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum-security facility at Fort Leavenworth. She was only pardoned by President Obama after seven years of confinement, during which time she had multiple suicide attempts attempted that garnered concern regarding her treatment and the morality of confinement in both the domestic and international communities. Ellsberg was cleared and set free after his arrest and trial, no further questions asked. In both cases, the government was hardly (if at all) held responsible for its activities. Even when the Post ran the Watergate Scandal a few years later, it was basically Nixon, alone, who faced any kind of real fallout.
The free press is one of the most powerful tools we, as the People, have against crime and corruption within our country and within our own government. It is also, however, one of the most dangerous. While political bias and financial interest continues to shape the course of history without regard to journalistic integrity, perhaps only serving to further divide the people of this country, The Post assures us that the free press has always, and will always be on our side. Given the completely different outcomes of Ellsberg’s case versus that of modern-day whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden, however, we must beg the question of if we, as Americans, no longer have the right to, or are even really capable of fact-checking our own government and holding it responsible for its own actions… Just something to think about.