Earlier this week Northern Michigan’s Lake Superior State University added the term “fake news” to its 43rd annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. According to dictionary.com those two toxic words, popularized by Donald Trump and adopted by, well, almost everyone, denote “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”
A new film, The Post, is a time capsule back to a time before exhortations of “fake news” created an atmosphere where the press is perceived as an enemy rather than the voice of the people.
Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. With the paper bordering on insolvency she has tough decisions to make.
When the New York Times breaks the story of a massive cover-up and is shut down by the Nixon White House, hardnosed editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees an opportunity to scoop the Times and make a splash. “Are any of you tired of reading the news,” he asks his staff, “instead of reporting on it?” Trouble is, the story involves several people close to Graham, most notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), who prolonged the Vietnam War despite knowing it was a no-win situation.
Graham must make the decision to publish or not. Running the so-called Pentagon Papers would expose years of government secrets, make an enemy of President Nixon and could scare off the investors she’s been courting. Not reporting could endanger young the Americans who were still being drafted and sent to fight an unwinnable war. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” argues Bradley.
The Post is a historical tale that feels as timely as any front-page story in today’s paper. A high-stakes look at journalism before the age of fake news, it reminds us of the importance of objective, investigative reporting in an era of secrecy, lies, and leaks. It’s an ‘if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future” message movie that shines a light on a watershed but mostly forgotten slice of our past.
The Pentagon Papers were a significant turning point in our recent history. They were proof of a credibility gap between what politicians say and what they are doing. For Bradlee, publishing these documents sent a message that the White House had no influence on what stories made the front page and which don’t. “The press must serve the governed not the governors.”
Combined, all these elements add up to a movie that aims to make a statement while avoiding preaching to its audience. Director Steven Spielberg and stars Hanks and Streep are entertainers first and foremost, and they do entertain here, but they also portray a period whose reverberations in the time of fake news are being felt stronger than ever.
The air of paranoia that hung over All the President’s Men, another movie centered on the investigative reporting of The Washington Post, is missing in The Post. Instead, Spielberg film’s is a fist-pump-in-the-air look at the integrity and importance of a free press. It’s a little heavy-handed but these are heavy-handed times.