“News is the first rough draft of history”

I went to see The Post on Friday with Ben.  I have a lot of feelings about it.

It’s a wonderfully made movie.  I mean, obviously.  You don’t pick Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Bradley Whitford and Bob Odenkirk just to make a funny little romp that goes nowhere and does nothing.  I don’t really feel like a person qualified to discuss the virtue of Spielberg’s cinematography choices, and that doesn’t really interest me too much either.  Like I said, it was a movie wonderfully made, and my tastes are such that that’s enough for me.

The story is what interests me.  The story they chose to tell it, the way they chose to tell it, and the frame they chose to display it in.  I’ve heard the story of the Pentagon Papers before.  Quite a few times in the past year or so, specifically.  If you’re not familiar with the events of history, I highly recommend the episode of the Reveal podcast that goes into detail on that topic.  It really helped clarify things in my mind while also giving me a close up perspective from many of the main players.

The Post, very intentionally, does not much go into the details of the Pentagon Papers or the series of events that led to their wide distribution in newspapers throughout the US.  That’s an important story, a fascinating story, and a story that has been told and retold and will continue to be told for years to come.  I’m a cynical and anxious person, as worried as the next about people forgetting history and being doomed to repeat it, but the story of our government lying to us for decades is one that is not going to go away easily: it’s written into our bones at this point.

Instead of looking at the wider story of the release of the papers themselves, The Post takes a more in-depth look at the moment when journalism stepped away from its symbiotic relationship with the government and into the role it still has today as the defender of democracy.  And at the center of that moment is a wealthy white widow named Katherine Graham.

Katherine, or Kay as she is called by the people who know her well, is trying really hard.  Her husband committed suicide and left her as the head of both a socially influential family and that family’s newspaper business.  This was before The Washington Post became what I know it as today: a contender right up there with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  At the beginning of the movie, Graham is going through the paperwork and meetings involved in taking the family company public, trying to save its dwindling profits by giving it an injection of new investment and a more national focus.

This was also before newspapers were generally what I know them as today: power interrogating power, humanity scrutinizing humanity.  Katherine Graham was a close personal friend of Robert McNamara,  Ben Bradlee has a photograph on his mantle of he and his wife sitting on a couch with John and Jackie Kennedy.  “I never thought of Jack as a source,” Ben tells Katherine at one point.  “I thought of him as a friend. That was my mistake.”

In this environment, what sort of truth could The Washington Post speak to power?  Everyone in decision-making roles stands to lose friends and important relationships that have otherwise stood the test of time.  Journalism was in the business of keeping the government honest, if only because competition between newspapers was fierce, but The Washington Post, at least, was struggling to walk the walk.

When The New York Times broke the story of the Pentagon papers, the country was instantly livid, according to the movie.  Protests in the streets started almost immediately.  The nation was watching, and the Nixon white house was clamoring to do damage control.  It slapped the Times with an injunction, and while the Times assuredly planned to fight it, they had to wait a few days for the courts to convene on the subject.  In the meantime, Washington was going to get its way: the papers would not do anymore damage than they already had.  They had successfully put the lid back on, even if they couldn’t squeeze the toothpaste back in.

Long story short, The Washington Post, at the sole discretion of Katherine Graham, gets a hold of a copy of the papers and, in spite of the illegality of pushing through the White House’s injunction (which technically applies to any newspaper who got the papers from the same source that the Times did, namely Dan Ellsberg) decides to publish.  Graham is terrified, because she knows that this means she, and some of the other higher ups, could go to prison and that the fledgling public company’s investors could pull out and everything her husband, father, and grandfather fought for and built would cease to exist.  But, as Bradlee points out and Graham agrees, “If we live in a world where the United States government tells you what we can and cannot print, the Washington Post has already ceased to exist.”

All of this is history, and for the most part, there’s not much in the movie that you couldn’t have gotten from reading the Wikipedia article.  But like I said, the movie frames the story around Katherine Graham and her personal struggle in this very public context.  From the beginning, it’s clear that no one takes Graham seriously as the head of the company.  “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on its hind legs: it’s not supposed to happen,” Tony Bradley, Ben’s wife, explains to him at one point.  “Kay is in a position she never thought she’d be in — a position I’m sure plenty of people don’t think she should have. And when you’re told time and time again that you’re not good enough, that your opinion doesn’t matter as much — when they don’t just look past you, when to them you’re not even there, when that’s been your reality for so long — it’s hard not to let yourself think it’s true.”

Naturally, this speaks to me on a personal level as a young professional woman.  I have been in dozens of meetings and classrooms where I will say something, no one will even acknowledge I’ve said it, and then when a man says the same exact thing moments later, they’ll be sure to compliment him on his good point.  That exact thing happens in this movie, and it hit me so hard I actually gasped.  It’s the kind of thing that people like to pretend women are overselling.  I’ve even heard people try to justify it, saying that the woman wasn’t speaking loud enough or that she said it at the wrong time.  Those things are true sometimes, I don’t deny it.  But to those people, I suggest they get themselves into that situation, get the reactions I have, and see how it feels.  And when it happens over and over again, no matter the context, you just see how easy it is to keep fighting.  You just see how empowered you feel to speak up for yourself.  And when you do speak up, you just see how well the people around you will react.

Katherine Graham’s story is uniquely a story of a white woman of extraordinary privilege.  She was born with her foot in the door: all she had to do was take the opportunity she had to step in.  And by the end of the movie, she does exactly that, telling pompous ass Arthur Parsons “[The Post is] no longer my father’s company.  This is no longer my husband’s company.  This is my company and anyone who doesn’t like that shouldn’t be on my board.”

And if there was anything about this movie I didn’t like, it was that it was yet another story of a dynamic white character in history.  We need more diversity in the stories we tell, and Meryl Streep doesn’t need any more Oscar bait.

But I can’t help the way Katherine Graham made me feel.  And I can’t say that I didn’t like it.

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