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The Public Interest and the Public Offering

The misguided media politics of Spielberg’s The Post

When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) exits the RAND Corporation with the initial batch of the Pentagon Papers concealed in his briefcase in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, his first stop is a hippie-supervised printing shop specializing in movie posters. It’s an entirely fitting gloss on the journalistic parable to follow: the critical gatekeepers in the saga of the Fourth Estate’s exposure of official American chicanery and global mass murder are, like Spielberg himself, middle-class rebels affiliated with the business of movie-making.

Never content to let a didactic moment rest unbelabored on screen, Spielberg has Ellsberg enter the print shop as we see a poster for the career-making Robert Redford vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—which, sadly, is but the first of the movie’s leaden callouts to its far superior predecessor in cinematic Post hagiography, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 adaptation of All the President’s Men. (Redford starred in that one as Post reporter Bob Woodward.) And for good measure, as Ellsberg takes out his vital document trove for clandestine Xeroxing, he’s standing in front of a movie poster for The Blob—a Cold War-era sci-fi allegory about the insidious reach of the Communist enemy, now hauntingly repurposed as a symbol of the rudderless American war machine itself. If it can’t be frozen and shot into the Arctic circle, as the original Blob was, well, the mundane machinery of American newspapering will have to do in a pinch.

The Post never goes beneath the surface of the media’s fraught relationship with power.

Spielberg’s movie was reportedly rushed into release, since the director grasped the urgency of The Post’s message at a moment when the American media is under near-perpetual siege from the more-than-figurative Blob known as Donald Trump. The general idea was to buck up flagging press morale with a stirring cinematic reminder of the first principles of journalistic enterprise in our democracy—vindicating the public’s right to know the conduct of the people’s business even as a sinister, conniving occupant of the Oval Office (Nixon in The Post’s dramaturgy; Trump in ours) is determined to smite the public’s duly appointed messengers into oblivion.

This is indeed a worthy moral to drive home amid all the metastasizing chaos of Trumpism. But since Spielberg is the one doing the driving, it never goes beneath the surface of the media’s fraught relationship with power—or much beyond the reassuring, crowd-pleasing style of a movie poster.

The story of The Post is principally the story of how Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) learns to tell truth to power, under the patient tutelage of the paper’s freewheeling Brahmin executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Graham, who became the publisher of the Washington Post after her husband Phil’s suicide in 1963, is facing her own professional crucible as the story opens: she’s about to launch the Washington Post Company on its first public stock offering, so as to better capitalize the paper and put it more firmly on the national map. We first see her jolting awake in bed, surrounded by various financial documents supporting the IPO, and her gradual involvement in the high-stakes decision to publish the Pentagon Papers is intercut with the corporate drama of getting the deal to stick among nervous investors amid rising rancor—and legal jeopardy—from the Nixon White House.

One big problem with this narrative frame, of course, is that one of these things is not like the other. Yes, as the movie repeatedly stresses, the company’s IPO prospectus contained standard language permitting investors to walk away from the deal in the event of a “catastrophic event”—like, say, criminal indictment of its corporate officers for violations of the Espionage Act threatened by Nixon’s Justice Department henchmen for the paper’s role in the Pentagon Papers publication. And a great deal of screen time is devoted to showing how Graham’s decision to proceed with the publication of the documents leaked by Ellsberg could place her corporate legacy in jeopardy. In one of the movie’s climactic speeches, delivered by Ben Bradlee’s wife Tony (Sarah Paulson), Kay Graham’s bravery resides in deciding “to risk her fortune, and the company that has been her entire life,” Tony also notes that Graham’s decision is a blow for the then-nascent cause of gender equality, against a male-dominated power structure that just doesn’t “look past you, but through you, as though you’re not even there.”

Indeed, the conscription of Katharine Graham into the front ranks of boardroom feminism is the movie’s other main theme. During the critical Washington Post Company board meeting to approve the IPO, the ultra-prepared Graham is shown quietly answering questions put by the powerful men in the room—only to have her replies ignored, and then repeated to a suddenly engaged listenership, by the company’s slower-footed male board members. The sustained show of patriarchal arrogance is so demoralizing that Graham herself grows flustered at the critical moment, and flubs all her studiously rehearsed talking points on the IPO; one of her chief male aides-de-camp has to step in and take over. As if this high corporate effrontery weren’t enough—and this is Steven Spielberg, remember, so nothing is ever enough—we soon see Georgetown hostess extraordinaire Kay Graham proffered as an all-purpose symbol of feminist grievance—in the bowels of Wall Street, no less. As she enters the stock exchange to launch the offering, she’s first incongruously surrounded, just outside the door, by a mysterious and unexplained congregation of women, who seem to be there just to deliver the semiotic message “You speak for us!

It’s true that Graham was a heroic and admirable publisher. But it’s also true that Graham’s feminism, such as it was, was very much a function of her privilege as a member of the American owning class.

This flat-footed iconography is even more ludicrous near the end of the film, as Graham exits the Supreme Court after the certiorari hearing to rule on the constitutionality of the Nixon administration’s injunctions to prevent the Post and the New York Times from continuing to publish the material in the Pentagon Papers. Here, the Post publisher is spontaneously mobbed by a sex-segregated group of adoring women antiwar protesters, all vigorously nodding their approval of the publisher’s actions, in what one can only assume is a high WASP version of a feminist chant. (Reports on the film have suggested that one of the women vigorously nodding in the Graham presence is supposed to be Hillary Clinton, which, if true, would only reinforce the film’s decorous treatment of powerful assortative breeding speaking to powerful assortative breeding.) The scene is bewildering on many levels; for starters, it’s difficult to imagine anyone less at home amid a klatch of hippie protesters than a native Georgetownian like Katharine Graham, who spends much of the rest of her screen time in The Post presiding over fancy parties where among the A-list guests is Robert McNamara, the bloodless former Ford Motor Company technocrat who engineered the largest commitment of U.S. forces in Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson.

More than that, though, this mystic communion of owner and demonstrators bound by an unspoken shared challenge to the patriarchy elides the real and divisive gender tensions within the antiwar movement, whose hairy-chested lead tacticians derisively referred to the feminist uprising in their ranks as “chick’s lib.” Instead of depicting Graham’s alleged retinue of feminist admirers as they actually were—vocal and combative rivals for social power within the deeply sexist antiwar movement—Spielberg instead depicts them as doe-eyed and silent camp followers in search of a charismatic, aristocratic leader. For a movie bearing an allegedly feminist message about the challenge to male prerogative within the central corridors of American power, it’s singularly bizarre to have the vast majority of women protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam motivated by a mute and mystic instinct for passive self-segregation. (The visual depiction of this instinct also makes the hippie culture of antiwar protest resemble nothing so much as the conduct of services in an Orthodox temple, with the women shuffling restively off to the side of the main event.)

It’s true that Graham was a heroic and admirable publisher—her role in keeping the Post independent amid its formative modern trials was no small factor in my decision to move to Washington to work for the paper’s book section way back in the year 2000. But it’s also true that Graham’s feminism, such as it was, was very much a function of her privilege as a member of the American owning class. To casually elide the origins of second-wave feminism with the plight of a very powerful member of the American WASP elite is akin to placing, well, the American movie industry on the vanguard of antiwar protest.

Alas, that’s far from the only species of social amnesia on display in the otherwise engaging drama of The Post. Just as the vision of feminist rebellion here mimics the decorous hierarchies of WASP privilege so does the chief dramatic tension stem, not from the vindication of the Fourth Estate’s hallowed rights to challenge executive power, but rather from the more insular and parochial question of the ultimate fate of the Washington Post Company’s IPO. Ever vigilant in browbeating his viewers, Spielberg telegraphs the functional identity of the Pentagon Papers crisis with the troubled course of the Post’s IPO by again showing Graham jolting abruptly awake—only this time, she’d fallen asleep in the midst of reviewing the Times’ Pentagon Papers coverage. In other words: same patrician homework challenge, different material.

The same willful confusion of corporate means and journalistic ends is absurdly manifest at the climax of the publishing drama surrounding the Ellsberg leaks. When Graham is confronted at the eleventh hour with the prospect that she, Bradlee, and the Post’s other senior managers may be jailed for publishing the Pentagon Papers, does she appeal to the sainted memory of John Peter Zenger, Elijah Lovejoy, and other great defenders of free speech in the American political tradition? No, she recurs by instinct to the language of the Post’s IPO prospectus. After being briefed on the many ways that plunging ahead with the publication of the documents leaked by Ellsberg will jeopardize the future economic prospects of the newspaper company—and thereby represent a dereliction of Graham’s own fiduciary duty to safeguard the paper’s well being, the publisher finally conquers her former crippling failure to rehearse the terms of the IPO before the paper’s own board of directors. “However,” she triumphantly announces to her retinue of corporate advisers, “the prospectus also talks about the mission of the paper and also says the paper is devoted to the nation and to the principle of a free press.” It’s a far cry from Give me liberty or give me death—or even without fear or favor.

But it’s the same standard that Bradlee, otherwise depicted as the fearless guardian of First Amendment freedoms amid the snares of Nixonian tyranny, takes up by instinct. Proudly showing Graham the wide array of metropolitan dailies that have also rushed to reprint the findings of the first Times and Post reports on the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee offers this sanguine assessment of the Post’s market profile on the eve of the Supreme Court’s ruling: “No matter what happens tomorrow, we are not a little local paper anymore.”

Allow me to exercise my own First Amendment rights and ask, Honestly, who gives a shit?

Allow me to exercise my own First Amendment rights and ask, Honestly, who gives a shit? Spielberg, by an instinct apparently honed via more than four decades as a crowd-pleasing middle-class movie fabulist, can only imagine journalistic values ultimately triumphing by virtue of the unassailable metrics of market share. Imagine abolitionist free-speech martyr Lovejoy, for example, staking his claim to constitutional protection on the hope that he would no longer be publishing “a little local paper”—or appealing to the bland shibboleths of an investor’s prospectus over against the abolitionist appeal to the higher laws of biblical conscience. By permitting the Post’s IPO to serve as the ultimate arbiter of the free-speech debate surrounding the Pentagon Papers’ publication, Spielberg unwittingly elevates the same monopolistic market forces that have hollowed out the robust practice of investigative journalism in the forty-seven years since the Pentagon Papers were published.

For a prooftext, one need look no further than the fortunes of the Washington Post since Bradlee and Graham’s heyday. Yes, the paper has lately enjoyed a revival as a watchdog of the public interest under the editorship of Marty Baron—and has even restored some of its profit margins, thanks in no small part to the tireless Twitter-baiting of Donald Trump. But it is also no longer held under the benevolent stewardship of the Grahams, who sold the revenue-challenged property to Amazon kingpin and richest man on Earth Jeff Bezos, in 2013. For now, the Bezos regime has operated in fairly benevolent fashion, and permitted the stellar reporting of David Fahrenthold, Greg Sargent, and other battle-tested Trump antagonists to flourish. This is not to say, however, that it is a remotely reliable news outlet on urgent questions of political economy, or non-establishment opinion-making.

In other words, a benevolent monarch is still a monarch. Just as it’s far from a sign of democratic health to have Oprah Winfrey as an unofficial avatar of “the resistance,” so is it troubling to have the defenders of press freedom in D.C. —toiling under the sententious slogan “democracy dies in darkness”—serving exclusively at the pleasure of a mega-billionaire who’s responsible for some of the retail sector’s absolute worst labor practices. Even as The Post is poised to net a predictable bushel full of Oscar nods, Bezos himself has gleefully set off a shit-eating bidding war among revenue-starved American municipalities to serve as the alternate corporate headquarters of Amazon’s labor-soaking, low-cost cyber-empire.

Spielberg unwittingly elevates the same monopolistic market forces that have hollowed out the robust practice of investigative journalism in the forty-seven years since the Pentagon Papers were published.

It’s a gruesome irony that would not have been lost on Ben Bagdikian, the former Post reporter who sleuthed out the source of the Pentagon Paper leaks and promised Ellsberg that the Post would publish the Papers in defiance of the Nixon administration’s injunction against the New York Times. Bagdikian devoted the balance of his distinguished career to documenting the unique perils that the economics of media concentration pose for American democracy, in landmark books like The Media Monopoly.

Bagidikian, by the way, led a far-from-uncinematic life himself, having emigrated to the United States as a refugee from the Armenian genocide, and reported on the shameful conditions in Pennsylvania’s Huntington State Correctional Institution while posing as a convicted murderer. Bagdikian was also the actual source of the most compelling argument that Hanks’s Bradlee makes in his bid to ensure that Graham signs off on the publication of the leaked Ellsberg documents: “the way to assert the right to publish is to publish.”

But what am I saying? Bagdikian abruptly left the Post in 1972, after his tour as the paper’s second ombudsman put him at loggerheads with Bradlee. There were likely no Georgetown parties to commemorate his tenure, and the man clearly couldn’t recite an investor’s prospectus or corporate bylaw to save his life. What on Earth, in other words, could Steven Spielberg do with a hero like that?