Critical Corner – The Post: Hollywood’s Statement on Press Freedom

Chibundu Okwuosa

It’s fair to say that Steven Spielberg’s The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham alongside an all-star cast, was well-received this awards season. The movie received a string of nominations for various awards including the Academy Awards and the Golden Globe Awards. Set in the early 1970s, the film tells the true story of the journalistic struggle between The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, a lengthy series of classified documents detailing the United States government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Throughout the film, most of the focus is on newspaper heiress Katharine Graham’s effort to transform The Washington Post into a financially viable and prestigious newspaper, as well as to enhance her own credibility as a businesswoman after taking the reigns as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper following her husband’s death. However, it also depicts the White House’s attempt to prevent the Pentagon Papers from being published by obtaining a court-ordered injunction against further publication by the Times. This injunction subsequently led to the well-publicized case, New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971).

It is these legal challenges and victories, touched upon briefly in the film, that I would like to examine more deeply. The fast-paced nature of The Post is part of what keeps the audience engaged but it also means that certain important historical aspects of the story are not given enough screen time. Although the New York Times Co. v. United States case represented a landmark Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment and theoretically marked a crescendo in the film’s plot, the details of the case itself are missing from the film almost entirely. The legal tussle begins after Post assistant editor, Ben Bagdikian, tracks down the source of the leak and obtains copies of the same material given to the Times. What follows is a scene that is likely all too familiar to in-house counsels everywhere — while Post reporters comb through the classified documents in the hopes of finding an attention-grabbing headline, the newspaper’s lawyers strongly advise against publishing the material due to fears that the Nixon Administration may bring criminal charges against them, knowing full well that this advice is falling on deaf ears. The situation is heightened by the fact that an injunction has already been granted by a court against the Times, marking the first time the federal government censored a newspaper in federal court in the country’s history. Consequently, the Post’s publication of any part of the Pentagon Papers risked putting Graham and others in contempt of court. Following what I believe to be one of the best scenes of the film, where Graham boldly disregards the group of men who are in place to advise and work for her but instead strong-arm and dissuade her, she chooses to run the story.

Following this, the Nixon Administration unsurprisingly takes legal action. The New York Times Co. v. United States and the United States v. Washington Post Co. cases were decided together, forcing both the Post and the Times to appear together before the Supreme Court to argue for their First Amendment right to publish the material. In what came to be known as the “Pentagon Papers Case,” the President argued that prior restraint was necessary to protect national security. The Court eventually ruled 6-3 in the newspapers’ favor, holding that the government had failed to overcome the heavy presumption against prior restraint of the press. Justices Black and Douglas further argued that the vague word “security” could not be used “to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment.”

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This Amendment is one of the most often-cited and well-known sections of the Constitution, and is ingrained in the American psyche. It has also taken on a new level of importance in our current climate where claims of “fake news” and attacks on the press have become more popular than ever. As a result, the film serves as a timely reminder of the need to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedoms long-enshrined in the United States Constitution.

Although The Post largely takes aim at the executive branch, instead of simply painting the press as an unbiased force for good in society, the tail end of the film cleverly depicts the ways in which Graham and Bradlee themselves have found their judgment clouded by their personal relationships to those in power in the past. By adding this crucial layer of complexity, the film succeeds in demonstrating that all institutions are subject to bias and how easily journalistic integrity can be compromised.