Friday, January 5, 2018

Katharine Graham Marches Forward with the Washington Post

It’s hard to think of the Washington Post as a small-town newspaper that cozied up to politicians in power. But that’s what it was when Katharine Graham took over the reins of the family media company after the death of her husband. The paper had been published by Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, since he bought it at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. In 1946 he handed over the paper to his son-in-law, Philip Graham. But Graham’s 1963 suicide—following a romantic scandal and a nervous breakdown—led to his widow, Katharine, taking The Post into her own hands. As a female raised largely by wealthy absentee parents she had no great faith in her own abilities. Still, she ultimately rose to the occasion, hiring Ben Bradlee as editor of the Washington Post and standing by him as the Post became a major player in the publication of the Pentagon Papers and, a few years later, in the Watergate investigations that ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Every movie buff knows All the President’s Men, the 1976 Watergate thriller that turned Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward into action heroes uncovering presidential dirty tricks. But even those of us who lived through the 1971 disclosure of the top-secret Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg may be a bit fuzzy in our recollections of what this scandal was all about. The papers, from the U.S. Department of Defense, traced the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, proving the extent to which various presidents and their cabinet officers had lied to Congress and to the American people about the impossibility of victory in Southeast Asia. When the New York Times, which had begun publishing the papers, faced a legal injunction, the Washington Post stepped into the fray.

What makes this a great subject for a movie is the fact that Katharine Graham treasured her long friendships with such political leaders as Robert McNamara, who’d been secretary of defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. We see at the very beginning of the film McNamara—aboard an airline leaving Vietnam—candidly telling RAND analyst Ellsberg that the war is unwinnable, before announcing at a press conference that progress is being made. To forge ahead with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Graham had to commit to offending McNamara and others, in the name of journalistic candor. It was her respect for Bradlee’s brash but principled journalistic standards that tipped the balance. 

Steven Spielberg decided to make this film last March, on a break from his ambitious sfx-heavy videogame movie, Ready Player One. To play Graham and Bradlee, he recruited two of Hollywood’s finest, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. They make fine sparring partners, in a film that offers real lessons for today. There are lots of quaint 1970s touches in The Post—telephone booths, news stories banged out on typewriters, linotype machines that spit out printed newspapers, bulky documents that must be copied page by page in Xerox machines. And, of course, few women in newsrooms, and even fewer in boardrooms. But in today’s era of “fake news” accusations, it’s all the more heartening to focus on a time when journalists took on the government, cluing in the American people to what was secretly being done in their names. Freedom of the press is one of the sacred pillars on which our government rests, and I for one thank Spielberg for reminding us of the price we pay for cronyism and for burying our heads in the sand. 

Trivia time: The classic Sousa march, “The Washington Post,”  was written in 1889 for the awards ceremony celebrating the winners of the newspaper’s essay contest.

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