What Do We Want from the News?
Steven Spielberg’s The Post
What do we want from the news?
This strikes me as an increasingly important question as the task of actually getting the news requires that we sift gigabytes of knowledge, errata, and trash all mixed up together on the Internet. Do we want to be entertained by the news, as David Tewkesbury and Jason Rittenberg have argued in News on the Internet (Oxford, 2012)? Do we want the truth? Sometimes, whether I am watching Fox or MSNBC, reading the opinion section of The New York Times or USA Today, it’s a little hard to believe that facts don’t look and behave differently, depending on how you frame them. Do people even want facts? Sometimes Americans’ resistance to fact claims makes it even hard to believe that we want the truth — or that we would recognize the truth if it came up and poked us in the eye.
“The truth!?” as Jack Nicholson spits acidly at Tom Cruise in the movie A Few Good Men (1992): “You can’t handle the truth!”
Or maybe, following Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities (1991), it’s connection we want from the news — connection to a national experience that is broadly and simultaneously shared. I am not sure what I am longing for from the news, but since I was eighteen years old, I have started almost every day with a newspaper, or two, or three. At Yale in the 1970s a subscription to the New York Times came at a rock-bottom price, a marketing strategy to win us over for life, even the conservatives among us. Not inconsequentially, having your own newspaper made you feel like a real grownup. Although the science majors were already hustling up to Science Hill by 8:00, we humanities and social science types read the paper and discussed the news at long, waxed dining hall tables over multiple cups of coffee.
Our other daily paper was the Yale Daily News, whose production staff stayed up all night pasting long lines of computer-generated print to stiff white paper with liquid wax, using razor blades to trim lines and insert new edits to a page taped to the light board. By sophomore year, I was working for them; by junior year, I was also stringing for the Hartford Courant, and editing the Yale Daily News Magazine. (Is it any wonder I ended up here at Public Seminar?)
Every morning, even if I was punchy and red-eyed from staying up all night meeting a deadline, doing paste-up and rewrites, or editing copy into publishable shape, I read The New York Times. The news was my religion. What did I want from it? Joy. Knowledge. Connection. The truth — I thought I could handle the truth. I’m not so sure anymore.
How ironic, it seems to me four decades later, that the news that I have loved so much now seems to be a central source of national disconnection, a fact that has surely contributed to the success of Steven Spielberg’s nostalgic new breakout hit about honest, hard-hitting, investigative reporting, The Post. Starring Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham, the movie takes place in the summer of 1971 when The New York Times began to publish the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” stolen by RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
When the Nixon administration sued to stop the Times from revealing studies that proved the United States had been covering up the failure of the Viet Nam War for a decade, winning an injunction to stop further publication and compel the return of the documents, the Post stepped into the breach and began to publish the Pentagon Papers too. In a landmark Supreme Court, New York Times Co. v. United States (June 30, 1971), the liberal Burger Court handed down a decision that freed both papers to continue the work, ruling that freedom of the press superseded the government’s right to keep secrets from the people in the name of national security.
The court decided, in other words, that we Americans could handle the truth. Perhaps the glow surrounding this movie conceals a deep anxiety as to whether we still can.
But back to the movie. The Times and the Washington Post were vindicated in 1971– a moment that, ironically, laid the constitutional foundation for Wikileaks to publish hacked documents during the 2016 campaign cycle; Julian Assange had registered the site as a journalistic enterprise back in 2006 for this very reason. But as The Post reveals, in 1971 it was not a foregone conclusion that the Post would take the risk of violating a federal court order to publish classified government documents in the public interest, nor were Graham and Bradlee confident that they would get away with it.
At the beginning of The Post, we see what a huge gamble this decision was. In poor financial shape, the paper is floating an IPO that has a contingency clause allowing its bankers to pull out in the first ten days after the agreement is signed should a disaster of some kind befall the Post. Having its publisher and editor jailed for violating a federal injunction might be just such a disaster, Graham’s lawyers warn her.
But there are other barriers to printing the truth as well: among them are Katharine Graham’s deep alliances with powerful Washington politicians, particularly the Vietnam war’s architect Robert McNamara; and – perhaps more importantly and insidiously – her lifetime accommodation to her subordination as a woman. Thus Spielberg, who began filming this movie two months after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, asks crucial questions. Can Graham put her class position, her friendships, and her inheritance on the line in the interests of telling the public the truth it deserves? Can a woman be a newspaperman? And: can Graham stand up to the legions of men bullying her – and Hanks, as Bradlee, is both a good guy and another kind of bully – to make her own decision about what she wants from the news?
Graham – portrayed by Streep as indecisive, dithery and cowed throughout much of the film – is pushed, not just by Bradlee’s conviction about journalism’s proper task, but also by her new knowledge that she is complicit with a liberal Washington media “Establishment” whose uncritical alliance with power has facilitated the lie of Vietnam. At the decisive moment, Graham is awakened in the middle of the night by Bradlee as the paper is about to go to press, and he tells her the truth: if the courts rule against them, they will both go to jail and the paper will be lost. Standing in her own dining room in a nightgown and puffy robe, surrounded by men in suits urging her to say no, Streep takes a breath: “Let’s – “ she says, falteringly and then firmly: “Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
At which point, New York audience I was part of burst into rapturous applause.
The pause — between Graham hearing the truth and acting on it — is deeply pleasurable. Unlike today’s news, even if you aren’t a historian, you know that Spielberg, or any other filmmaker, would not have brought us this far to stop the presses. When Graham agrees, Bradlee hangs up and yells, and the pressman hits a button. We see the newsroom, where reporters are working on the next story, shake as the presses rumble to life. The papers print sheet by sheet, roll up a rollercoaster of finished papers, is bundled by dozens of men whipping string around a mile a minute, and flung into and out of trucks all over Washington.
As the theft of the Pentagon Papers emerges throughout the film, Spielberg also teaches us that the job of journalists is to turn facts into stories. Facts and truths are sometimes hidden and sometimes out in the open, but the news is something that is made. We see the documents being removed from RAND and copied. We follow a reporter as the documents are retrieved from a shoddy motel room and returned to Ben Bradlee’s house in cardboard boxes. We hear the story emerge as reporters sort and discuss each memo. We watch the copy curling out of a clattering typewriter, whiz to the copy room in a pneumatic tube, be copyedited with a big soft pencil, and be hand-carried by a copy boy to the typesetter, where individual letters are slotted into frames one by one and slammed into place for printing.
It’s hard to know what a movie about the news in 2017 would look like, since none of this technology exists anymore. Is it the lack of palpability, the lack of thingness of a newspaper, the obscure origins of information, partly at fault for the deep suspicions about contemporary journalism that exacerbated political divisions in the United States?
And of course the New York audience burst into rapturous applause at the moment of truth. Because the lesson is what the lesson always has been in a good newspaper movie: the role of editors, and publishers, is to create an environment where journalists can tell the truth. Good newspapers don’t toady to power, and they don’t equivocate. This is the lesson that Katharine Graham learns in The Post, and it’s how she evolves from her designated role as an heiress, and a caretaker for the paper, to being a publisher in her own right. But the lesson is an especially sweet one because Graham, despite her charm, education and ability, had been overlooked her whole life. She has overcome the experience of being snubbed by her own father, as he handed the paper over to her husband; the trauma of that husband’s suicide; and the cocoon of men in dark suits who herd her from meeting to the next, telling her what to do.
But I wonder if audiences elsewhere – in Phoenix, Racine, Charleston, or Long Island – understood the story of The Post as I did? The stance that papers like the Times and the Post took towards the Nixon administration may have been the first crack in opening between liberals and a new kind of conservative – patriotic, suspicious of educated elites and “limousine liberals” (a political identity that Graham, a former Republican and centrist Democrat embraced), and resentful of new attitudes towards race and gender – that Nixon cultivated to his advantage in 1968 and 1972. Are there some audiences from whom Nixon, seen only in shadow, and heard through the tapes that would be produced two years later by subpoena, would be the tragic victim of this story? I suspect so. After the Pentagon Papers, Graham would endorse her editors’ continued confrontations with the Nixon Administration, that Nixon himself viewed as an illegitimate power grab.
Drawing a straight line between Nixon and Trump is exactly what Spielberg intends. But he departs slightly from the standard conventions of a newspaper movie to make a woman a co-hero, even at a moment when women were nearly shut out of political reporting (although toward the end of the film, we see the future: a woman answers a ringing phone by barking: “Meg Greenfield!”) This story of a woman’s courage in the face of misogyny and her own indecision speaks to our Trumpian moment too. Many of us will remember that the Nixon administration’s increasingly blunt efforts to shut down the Watergate investigation included a vulgar attack on one of Graham’s, and many women’s, most distinguishing physical characteristic. In 1972, as the outlines of the Post’s Watergate investigation were emerging Attorney General John Mitchell famously warned a former Post reporter working on George McGovern’s presidential campaign, that he might want to tell his former boss that the publisher was going to “find her tit in a wringer” if she didn’t shut down the story.
Graham’s response was to commission a jeweler to manufacture a little gold lapel pin, which she wore around the Washington Post’s offices, depicting – a breast in a wringer.
But back to my first question: what do we want from the news? Spielberg is clearly arguing that we want the truth. We want the courage to tell and listen to the truth, and we want the information we need to make our own decisions as citizens. But our current political crisis may stem less from a fundamental disagreement as to what the facts are than it does from conflict over what the story is, whose version of it can be trusted, and what kind of truth we can actually handle. What Americans often seem to want from the news is the comfort of having our own version of events reinforced by celebrity journalists who reassure us that what we think, and what we know, is not only the right story, but one that we can agree to live with.
Is this a conservative problem? Is it a liberal problem?
I think the answer to both questions is: yes. Readers that want to learn more about how, and why, the public chooses – and rejects – different versions of the news might want to look at:
- Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post and Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed Media, interviewed by Judy Woodward of The News Hour about why Americans outside major cities don’t trust the urban media establishment (January 2, 2018.)
- Jonah Goldberg on the supplanting of civic institutions by “virtual communities, which serve not so much to educate and civilize as to reinforce pre-established beliefs.” (National Review, January 3, 2918.)
- The editors of The Washington Examiner on why errors in the “liberal” press create public doubt about the believability of any media outlet (December 5, 2017.)
- Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal about why The Post strikes all the right notes at a moment when “our free press is besieged and truth itself is under unprecedented assault” (December 18, 2017.)
- Tyler McCarthy at Fox News about why Tom Hanks would not go to the Trump White House if he were asked – not that he has been, or that Trump even plans to view The Post (December 20, 2017.)
- At n+1 Nausica Renner explains how her conservative dad uses free association as a method for seeking truth in a digital media environment (winter 2018.)
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.