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Posted at: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM; last updated: Jan 7, 2018, 1:34 AM (IST)

The pursuit of truth

Steven Spielberg’s journalism drama The Post is inspiring and full of suspense
The pursuit of truth
A still from The Post

Navnee Likhi

Steven Spielberg’s The Post brings out the true story of The Washington Post’s fearless exposure of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 which caused challenges to the federal government. The protagonists — Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post — unravel the secret of the classified Pentagon Papers that spanned the tenure of former US Presidents Harry S. Truman, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower. President Truman’s administration, however, directly involved the United States in the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967. 

The Pentagon Papers were prepared by a team headed by the Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. The papers had found that the US government knew that it would not win the war but kept sending its troops, rather than admit truth. The revelation sent shockwaves throughout the country. Since the papers were classified top-secret, President Richard Nixon was, unsurprisingly, not keen to expose these to public scrutiny. The film centred on the first female publisher Katharine Graham, who inherited the paper after her husband’s death. Initially, shy and prone to self-doubt, Katharine had to face numerous detractors. At a meeting, her colleague Arthur told her, “We feel you lack the resolve to make tough choices”. However, Katharine soon bloomed into an outspoken person who was sure of herself. Along with her editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, they rebuilt the paper’s reputation and caught up with the New York Times to expose a massive cover up of the Pentagon Papers.   

Katharine and Ben transformed The Washington Post from a regional publication to a journalistic powerhouse that would take on and, eventually, bring down the Nixon government.  

The film opened in 1971 when The Washington Post had been denied permission to cover the wedding of President Nixon’s daughter Tricia Nixon. The Nixon administration had not been easy with the The Post’s society coverage of the family. The paper faced the risk of being shut out of Washington DC’s biggest social event.   

Meanwhile, Bradlee caught wind of a major story that was about to break in the New York Times concerning 7,000 papers of original documents smuggled a few years earlier out to Santa Monica, offices of Rand Corporation by Daniel Ellsberg who worked there and decided to leak the laboriously copied documents to the New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan. Though his identity was kept secret by The New York Times, Bradlee knew Daniel personally and suspected he was the source of leak. Meanwhile, The New York Times got slapped with a federal court injunction that blocked it from further publication of the Papers. They were told to cease running stories drawn from documents by the office of the attorney-general, thereby forcing everyone to make a choice: either cooperate with government or do what they thought was right and risked going to jail and faced financial ruin.

The Washington Post had cordial association with successive administrations and was not known for rocking the political boat, but was tempted to share the secret of the Pentagon Papers.   

Bradlee decided to track down its own copy of the documents. He sent his colleague Bagdikian to Daniel Ellsberg to get a complete copy of Pentagon Papers. Once they got the papers, Ben and his staff had about a day to sort out the information that the New York Times had for months.   

Katharine was at odds with Ben as he was racing ahead whereas she was being careful and even fearful of the repercussions. The ordeal of choice between publishing and not publishing the classified papers, since her family still owned the paper and had investments in the stock market, the investors could conceivably back out of their investments over this catastrophic occurrence. This would include the publisher being arrested for treason and would also have to face court trial. Being aware of what was inside the Pentagon Papers, Graham’s dilemma was loyalty. Should she go soft on the issue or stick to the truth? Corporate interests, shareholders, and daunting legacy of The Washington Post weighed heavily down on Graham.

She eventually gathered her nerves to publish the Papers. At this moment, Ben said to her, “What’s the good of having a newspaper if you cannot hold a government accountable?”  

It was fascinating to watch as the camera glided through the newsrooms, to stately homes turned into chaotic offices and Graham in meetings. The casual gatherings became unexpectedly a place where history was made. As the Pentagon Papers were published by The Washington Post, it led to a court battle, where the fight was literally surrounding the First Amendment and the freedom of press. The court ultimately gave the verdict that publication of the Pentagon Papers was fully justified under the First Amendment which vowed to protect the freedom of press. Katharine Graham is greeted with adoration by young men and women as she had set an example for future.

The film stared down at cynicism of the government with a smile because it uncovered the fact that governments only saw journalists as threats when they had something to hide. Meryl Streep’s role as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as the editor revealed the beauty of their graceful performances. Both portrayed their roles with right balance of modesty and gusto to expertly displaying their star power. 


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