Cinema

‘The Post’ Reminds us What Journalism Used to be and What it Should be

The dharma of the journalist should be to hold the powerful to account and not worry about the consequences.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in a scene from The Post.

For a journalist of a certain vintage, Steven Spielberg’s The Post brings back memories of how journalism used to be: journalists, with cigarettes in their mouths, banging away on their typewriters, teletype machines, dial-up telephones, hot metal typefaces etc. But more thrilling is the kind of journalism it reminds us of – hard-nosed investigations, hyper competitiveness, willingness to step over the lines and a conviction that journalism, and journalists, existed to hold power to account and would go to any extent to take on the establishment, even risking jail.

In the darkened auditorium, watching the intense debates around ‘to publish or not to publish’, in which everyone – editors, publishers, lawyers and even senior administration figures – participate, reminds us what journalism is all about. Publish and be damned is not always an easy credo to follow, but something more fundamental – the first principles, as it were – should always be top of mind: that journalism should owe its allegiance to the nation and its people, not the government of the day.

This may sound obvious but is not always an easy maxim to follow. In 1971, the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers – a government study which showed that successive administrations continued with the Vietnam war despite knowing it was going badly. The Washington Post wanted to follow up, but just then the Nixon administration managed to get an injunction from the courts barring the NYT from publishing any more of the ‘top secret’ documents.

This would have deterred anyone – as the Post’s lawyers point out, publishing them would now be considered contempt of court – but the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) was ready to take a chance.

It was not so easy, however. Bradlee and his team were considered reckless by the Post’s lawyers and the company board, which at that very moment was about to go public on the stock exchange. Any infraction of this magnitude would discourage investors and bankers and with the threat of prison hanging over the editor and the publisher, Katharine Graham (played superbly by Meryl Streep), it could harm the company’s future. The final decision lay in Graham’s hands.

Graham was an accidental publisher; her father had handed over the company to his son-in-law, Katherine’s husband, who later committed suicide. It becomes clear that the all-male (and all white) board does not take her seriously – they talk over her, they assume to take decisions independent of her. Graham herself is diffident, explaining that she never wanted the job. It was a world where the ladies retire to another room to gossip while the men discuss affairs of the world.

But she had to take a decision on whether to publish the papers, and she does. As the dramatic tension rises, there are discussions on the duty of the journalist and of the newspaper to its reader. Graham is close friends with Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, who commissioned the report. Should she choose her loyalty to her friend or her commitment to her newspaper?

Katherine Graham and the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Credit: Youtube

Things are not so easy for Bradlee either. He is reminded of the fact that he knew John F. Kennedy well – a bit too well, since he dined at the White House regularly. Did that compromise his journalistic integrity? He denies it but has to face the bitter truth – journalists and politicians can never be friends. “We have to be a check on them,” he remarks, remorseful of how he let his friendship temper his professional judgment. McNamara is friends with you because you are the publisher of the Washington Post, Bradlee tells Graham, but he is actually talking to himself.

These are the kind of ethical issues journalists have grappled with since time immemorial and are truer than ever today. We know that the Post went on to break stories about Watergate which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. In more recent times, the Post and the NYT have taken on Trump (even if their judgment during the war on Iraq was found wanting.)

But that is in the United States. Back home, there are real question to be asked about the nature and behaviour of the Indian media. How would an Indian newspaper handle a story like the Pentagon Papers? Going by the Indian media environment, the short answer is, it wouldn’t. First, the managements would not allow it, and not just because they are afraid of the legal implications, but also because they may not want to annoy the government. Editors may baulk at it too, not least because they would think they are being ‘anti-national’. The government may not need to exert pressure; why bother when the media themselves are playing ball?

The bigger question – should the media stand on the side of its readers or the government – is a moot one; it is answered on a daily basis in India, and not in a way that is flattering to the profession. Never has the media been so alienated from its core principles and never before have journalists sucked up to the government of the day as they are doing now. Reporters rushing to take a selfie with the prime minister is only one extreme manifestation of the capitulation by the media; others do it more subtly and cleverly. The end result is the same – a severely defanged media which is now little more than Nipper, the dog who came to be known as His Master’s Voice.

Journalists everywhere should see The Post if only to remind themselves what journalism used to be and what it should be. It is an invigorating experience. Though there well might be others who will simply laugh at how quaint, and perhaps naïve, those days – of typewriters, landlines and deeply held professional principles – were.

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