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Slimantics: 'The Post,' as relevant as ever


Slim Smith



The Monday matinee of "The Post" at Malco Theater drew an audience of about a dozen gray-hairs, present company included. 


I suspect the movie evoked a sense of nostalgia for this particular audience, a look back at America, circa 1970, when people got their news primarily from newspapers, you made calls from pay-phones and business was almost exclusively a man's world. 


As on old newspaper guy, a movie about the newspaper industry of the era stirred memories of a time when grizzled old editors (people who were my age now) braced their morning coffee with a shot from a bottle kept in a desk drawer, ashtrays on reporters' desk were piled high with cigarette butts and the AP ticker was Muzak for a newsroom full of reporters, editors.  


The newspapers of my earliest recollections were loud and full of energy and chaos and lively conversation. 


"The Post" which tells the story of The Washington Post and its battle with the Nixon Administration over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, is a look back at critical point in our history.  


Had it hit the theaters even a year ago, it would have been considered simply an historical drama. 


But "The Post" is not just a look back. Its relevance, and its importance, is obvious today. That is why producer Steven Spielberg rushed production of the film to get it into theaters now. 


The way we get news has changed, obviously. Print readership has fallen as emerging online media -- news aggregators, they are called -- and cable news claim bigger and bigger audiences. 


People today can get their news faster and from a greater variety of sources than ever before. On the down side, the standards for truth, accuracy and fairness that had been a hallmark of the newspaper industry have been diluted by news sources whose motives and commitment to those principles is questionable. 


The cry of "fake news" is an assault that falls on even the best, most principled and respected newspapers, a drumbeat of criticism that accompanies stories the reader does not like.  


Even newspapers who have faithfully performed their role honorably for more than 100 years are now dragged down by such fallacious claims. 


"The Post" reminds us that this is not the first time the media has faced a "shoot the messenger" mentality. 


In 1971, The Washington Post and The New York Times faced what was the greatest challenge to the free press since our country's founding.  


The Nixon Administration sought to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a classified study that revealed that the American people had been lied to and deceived by the government over the Vietnam War by four presidential administrations. 


Like all good dramas, the movie focused on the people behind the story, the Post's hard-charging editor Ben Bradlee and, to an even greater degree, Katherine Graham, who became the first woman publisher of a major newspaper after the suicide of her husband. 


Graham's father had left The Washington Post not to Katherine, but to her husband, a move she understood and accepted. It was a man's world, after all, and women who worked in the industry were confined to women's coverage -- home-making, fashion, entertainment. The serious business of newspapers was men's work. 


Even as publisher, Graham was treated dismissively by most of the men who worked for her. 


That changed with the arrival of the Pentagon Papers, when Graham, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep, asserted her authority at a time when the newspaper faced an existential challenge and the idea of freedom of the press was under full assault from the White House. 


One scene in the movie illustrates that point particularly well. Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, is talking with his wife about the courage required to defy the government by printing the Pentagon Papers. 


"She is so brave," Bradlee's wife noted. 


"What about me?" Bradlee countered. 


"Oh, you're brave, too, but not like her," she said. 


The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was defining moment of Graham as publisher of The Washington Post. A few years later, the newspaper would play a critical role in bringing down the corrupt Nixon Administration. Never again, would Graham be dismissed because she was a woman. 


Misogyny and the assault on the free press are still relevant - particularly relevant - today. 


Women are emboldened to come forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. A new day is dawning, exposing all the ugliness that power had concealed, while pointing the way for a more just, honorable future. 


Likewise, the cry of "fake news" is an attack on the integrity and character of today's principled media. 


Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham, at great personal and professional risk, spoke truth to power and held government accountable in the face of bitter criticism. Ultimately, truth carried the day. 


Truth, the movie reminds us, does not always go off as the betting favorite. It does not always break clean from the gate. At times, it paces well back in the field around the back stretch. But, inevitably it surges ahead at the finish line. The smart money, though, bets on Truth. 


The cry of "fake news" will be exposed for the fraud it is, an act of desperation by those who have staked their fortunes on something other than the Truth. 


It was true in 1971. 


It remains true today.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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