The Post, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama about the 1970s publication of the top-secret Pentagon Papers, is swooningly in love with journalism. Throughout the film, reporters in smoky rooms riffle through reams of paperwork on the hunt for stories they can wring out about the government’s misinformation campaign about the Vietnam War. When their work runs up against the deadline and they pause for the day, a massive printing press chugs into effect, converting their labors into text with a rattle so deafening it would seem to be wasted on anything less than culture-shaking news.
The Pentagon Papers, which detailed the scope, vastly greater than had been publicly known, of U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia, were as big as news got. The story was first broken by the New York Times in June 1971; Spielberg’s film documents how the Washington Post followed suit with its own set of stories the same month. (The Post’s is a more cinematic story, in part because it leads right into a yet bigger journalism narrative—two young reporters digging into a break-in at the Watergate.) The stories’ impact is felt in The Post as papers, practically steaming with the heat of the news inside, hit the pavement. Change, Spielberg indicates, is coming—and it’s a result of journalists’ work.
Spielberg’s affection for the press is unfashionable, and not merely because so much news today is generated through less clatteringly loud devices. Now the most-attention-getting news passes first through web servers, not printing presses. But there’s also the fact that in our current era, in which tossing aside unwelcome news as “fake” is in vogue from the Oval Office on down, news on par with the Pentagon Papers is far less likely to make an impact. Would similarly news-breaking coverage today change the minds of anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to believe it?
Consider this: The filmmaker with the longest track record of pleasing crowds in American history has now put out a film about a profession much of the public distrusts. The journalists of The Post, led by editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), were proven right in time. But in their moment, it was evidently risky: Graham, seeking to be a steward of her family’s media business, is forced to contend with the negative business implications of controversy as she decides what she can allow. Bradlee, in charge of the paper’s news gathering, pushes aggressively for the story—even as it becomes clear it could land him and Graham in prison.
President Richard Nixon hated the press and its potential to expose various wrongs; he called them liars and sought to bring the power of his office crashing down on them. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Graham and Bradlee, in various meaningful senses, won; it’s a matter of the historical record that the Pentagon Papers were in fact published by the Washington Post with Graham’s support and that Bradlee went on, as editor, to preside over the coverage of Watergate, the news story that ended the Nixon presidency.
The film ends on a victory, and a new hope—Nixon’s fall at the hands of two reporters is just around the bend. But journalism’s victory was short-lived. Graham, balancing the demands of her reporters and her shareholders, was motivated to retain a strong business to pass on to her children; after her 2001 death and after years of losing money, the Graham family sold the Washington Post in 2013. (Under new ownership and re-energized, it’s come back to the center of the national discourse.) Now Bradlee’s vision of the press as the check on untrammeled government power seems more threatened than ever.
After all, the sort of existential crisis Graham faces—controversy would make her newspaper unattractive to the financiers who might guarantee its future—is orders of magnitude less -impactful than the bottom dropping out that the media has seen in the decade since the 2008 financial crisis. Vastly more ad-starved publications now live perpetually on the knife’s edge that, for Graham in The Post, lasts only as long as before the closing of her round of financing. The few days’ worth of tension the film depicts is, for so many media outlets and their employees, an ever-present reality. And even as serious and resource-intensive investigative reporting at major outlets like the Times and Post has recently shaken our culture, the shuttering or gutting of so many outlets has meant less aggressive and adversarial reporting of federal and local politics, allowing wrongdoers of all ideological stripes to sleep more easily. That crisis in the journalism business was underway well before the election of a president who actively discredits any coverage even tepidly critical of him.
Where The Post succeeds is not in making a universal case for journalism’s impact but in depicting the work as its own reward for those willing to dig into it. These specific journalists, from Graham’s executive who surprises herself with her daring to all of Bradlee’s toiling scribes, make their cases not through appealing to readers’ higher sensibilities or their idealism but by producing gut-wrenching, morally gripping stories that readers can’t wait to get their hands on. These stories’ impact comes from their producers’ willingness to call the truth what it is, and do so with moral clarity and with style, too.
But moral clarity and style can only get a publication so far; they must be met at least part of the way by a reader willing to be wooed. The Post still has an engaged readership, but so too do many publications, and social media feeds, that spread calumny and discord instead of facts. The Post is a rousing movie, but there’s a creepy silence once the machines stop clattering and the credits roll. The movie is intended as a rallying cry for the power of truth to effect change, but in a post-truth moment, it reads like a love letter to something lost. It’s a document of our unreachable shared history, not our fractured present.