The Post is a fine film. Meryl Streep is fantastic, as usual, and Tom Hanks is a believable Ben Bradlee, publisher of The Washington Post when the biggest threat to First Amendment rights of the free press was waged—until now, of course.
The Post’s subject matter—the publishing of the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” a Department of Defense study of the makings and escalation of the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsburg—doesn’t allow for the same suspense Watergate did for All the President’s Men. The Post is not a thriller in any means, but the drama is plentiful thanks to the film revealing the business side of the newspaper business.
Sure, the means of news distribution has changed mightily since the advent of the Internet, but newspapers were a low-margin business then and still are thanks to television. Truth-telling didn’t result in riches then, and it still doesn’t. But there’s more to business than money, and Katharine Graham recognized this as CEO of The Washington Post.
Graham, portrayed by the always fantastic Meryl Streep, who plays the part of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world to perfection, is a timely character given the mass of allegations brought against men in Hollywood and other positions of power. Strong, female leads are finally becoming more common in Hollywood, and more and more women are ascending to positions of power in business and politics.
Graham got her job when her husband committed suicide, and members of her very own board believed she had no business running The Washington Post. She proved them all wrong, taking the company public and selling 1.294 million shares at a price of $26 per share. The starting price was reported as $24.50 in the film, however. Regardless, by the end of her tenure in 1991, shares were worth $888 each. That’s growth of 3,315 percent. She did it all despite an injunction being filed against The New York Times, to whom the “Pentagon Papers” were originally leaked, that forced The Times to cease publishing stories regarding the papers. The Post was subject to the same fate, but Graham published anyways.
Why did she publish? No members of her board recommended it. Only publisher Ben Bradlee, portrayed by Tom Hanks, wanted to publish, and even he wasn’t the reason Graham decided to do so. If you visit The Washington Post website today, you’ll find the mission statement is the same as it was in 1935, when Eugene Meyer wrote “The Seven Principles for the Conduct of a Newspaper." They are:
- The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.
- The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.
- As a disseminator of the news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.
- What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old.
- The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners.
- In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good.
- The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men.
Graham decided to publish because of principles five, six and seven. The newspaper would not be fulfilling its duty to its readers if it knew the truth and chose to conceal it in the interests of business. And even if investors pulled out of the stock offering, which was their right if done so within seven days in the event of a “catastrophic event,” “the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good.” Graham was also willing to sacrifice a friendship. She was friends with Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense, but she nor the paper would be an ally or perceived as an ally to any special interest. This is why I subscribed to The Washington Post immediately after seeing The Post: because the newspaper still adheres to those same principles.
I’ve been exhausting my free online articles at The Washington Post long before I ever needed it to do my work. I used to be a journalist, and even when I was writing the news I was reading the news. Now I mostly write about the news, so I find myself exhausting my free online articles at The Post faster than ever. In the search for truth, I am most often led to The Washington Post—an American institution with the interests of Americans in mind, then and now.
The Post is a most timely film given the state of the union and threat to the First Amendment rights of the free press. Now we have White House representatives avoiding the press, with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt surrounding himself with security, refusing to hold press conferences, and hand-picking interviewers who and news outlets that support his stance and the stance of the administration. Information coming out of the EPA comes in the form of press releases that best serve the goals of the White House—no questions allowed. The EPA is, in effect, writing the news as they see fit—a severe threat to the First Amendment rights of the free press to act as a check on the power of politicians. The EPA is acting like the public relations arm of the collective of corporations now running the EPA.
When politicians dictate news coverage, truth is unattainable and citizens are incapable of properly informing themselves. All the journalists in the world can’t uncover the truth if those in power refuse to answer questions or deflect the attention of the public to what they feel is newsworthy. But as long as there are brave whistleblowers and leaks of sensitive information, The Washington Post will sacrifice its business interests to serve the interests of America and Americans. It’s mission statement demands it.