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The Washington Post’s Brief Encounter with Honor

Steven Spielberg’s new film about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 has two themes. The first is in the main plot of the film: journalism as a crucial safeguard against official secrecy and abuse of power. The second, which is barely touched on, is the corruption of journalists who protect powerful people and interests due to friendships or political bias. According to this movie, there was a moment when journalists considered putting aside political bias and personal ambition to act with honor. As we can appreciate from surveying the disastrous landscape of the modern media, the moment was allowed to pass.

The Post tells the story of how the federal government tried to stop the New York Times and Washington Post from printing the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War that military analyst Daniel Ellsberg stole from the defense contractor Rand Corp. The documents revealed that U.S. government officials had been lying about the war, having admitted internally, as early as 1964, that it was not winnable the way it was being fought. The government sued to prevent their publication, and legal battles led to the Supreme Court. The Washington Post won the case, setting a modern precedent for press freedoms.

Tom Hanks plays Post editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep plays its publisher, Katharine Graham, who became the first female Fortune 500 CEO in 1963 when she assumed control of the company after her husband’s suicide. Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer have written a fast-moving and effective script, and Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky, and production designer Rick Carter capture the colors, fashion, and architecture of the nation’s capital in the 1970s.

This movie has been compared to the Watergate classic All the President’s Men. But Alan Pakula’s 1976 film is a governmental whodunit, a search for the guilty party. The Post (in which we learn who stole the documents in the first scene) is an example of what could be called the go-for-broke genre. Like Rounders (1998), the Paul Newman film The Verdict (1982), and the just released Molly’s Game (2016), The Post follows a protagonist who puts everything on the line to follow a just goal. If the Supreme Court had ruled against the Washington Post, Graham could have lost everything.

The Post also does something unexpected for Hollywood, by indicting—however fleetingly—the cozy relationship between the media and liberal politicos. The Vietnam slog outlined in the Pentagon Papers was mostly the work of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon is made a villainous presence in The Post despite the fact that, as the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan has pointed out, Nixon wanted the Pentagon Papers held back to avoid greater risks to American lives as he was trying to extract the United States from the war.

One of the most powerful scenes is when Bradlee and Graham confront each other about their respective tight relationships with the Democratic Party elite. Graham is friends with LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, whom we see sipping a drink at a cocktail party at Graham’s tony Georgetown home when her editor arrives to speak with her about their paper being the target of the administration’s legal suit. When Bradlee points over at McNamara, Graham bristles, responding that Bradlee pulled his punches when covering his pal President Kennedy. The camera settles on Bradlee, who quietly admits that, yes, he went soft on JFK. “Those days have to be over,” he says, looking like he has just woken up after a long dream.

This dramatic high point of The Post is allowed to pass too quickly—especially since the concept of honor is central to the movie, and in admitting to playing favorites, Bradlee was addressing that concept. The message here is that telling the truth about a war that was costing young American lives was more important than friendships or loyalty to the government. Today, the loss of honor is at the core of why so many people no longer trust the media.

That Ben Bradlee was willing to at least attempt to face his own hypocrisy could well stem from the fact that he was a young naval officer during World War II, an experience that he talked about in a 2014 interview. Said Bradlee: “The fact of the matter is that the war, and the Navy in particular, played such important roles in my life.” He compared his job as a combat information center officer to that of an editor.

This model of a newspaper editor as an honorable man who serves America is largely gone, ironically due to the success of Bradlee’s paper. As The Post notes at the end, shortly after the Pentagon Papers case, the Watergate story broke, and it made Bradlee, Graham, and the Washington Post rich and famous. Today it is rare for mainstream journalists to come from a military background. Usually they come from our elite schools, which mostly produce liberals. As Bradlee once said:

The counterculture in this country, which came along in the early ’60s as a result of Vietnam and was fueled by Watergate—where the government was forced to resign in disgrace—created a totally different person. I mean, they’re much less respectful of authority. They are more cynical. It’s harder for them to believe in authority. Authority has proved to be wrong in quite a few major instances. So they started a reexamination of all institutions, including journalism, God knows. But it also included the military and the Church. There isn’t a church in the world whose foundations weren’t shaken. And it’s still going on.

This is an acute observation, except in one important respect. After the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, journalists became just as slavish to authority as they had ever been—it was simply a different authority they genuflected to. Now it was feminism, abortion, environmentalism, and secularism rather than the traditional institutions. Again, we see how tragically brief was that experience of Bradlee’s at Kay Graham’s party in 1971—a flash of self-examination and a call to do better, both lost.

My own time as a young Washington journalist in the 1990s was an example of how the liberal worldview had come to dominate. A recent college graduate returned to my home town, I had grown up idealizing Bradlee’s paper. Freelancing for the Post’s Outlook section and Style section, I learned firsthand that certain ideas were out of bounds in that newsroom. People who were Republican, pro-life, or against gay marriage were not hired—or had their copy spiked. Those who thrived knew never to commit a sin in the church of Progressivism.

These days the Post, and the media, exhibit a strong combination of sloppiness and arrogance. They are Ben Bradlee without the self-doubt. In his perceptive 2001 book Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, James Bowman describes not insanity in the medical sense, but “a sort of folie de grandeur on the part of ordinary but self-important people who haven’t the excuse of insanity for their lack of humility and a sense of proportion.” Media madness “lives and thrives among those who are perfectly healthy but whose culture has provided them with no check on their confidence in their own intellectual powers at the same time that it has fostered in them a powerful need for the status to be claimed by the exercise of such powers.”

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