How the '60s Counterculture Changed the Washington Post

When I heard Ben Bradlee himself tell the story at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, The Post, he shook his head in disgust. In retirement, the former editor would occasionally hold forth in the Washington Post newsroom where I worked, retailing his favorite anecdotes—of which the Pentagon Papers was clearly not a favorite.

“Oh, the Times was kicking our ass on a daily basis,” Bradlee moaned. In June 1971, the New York Times had published the Defense Department study that showed U.S. presidents and policymakers had been lying for decades about U.S. prospects for victory in the Vietnam war. The Post newsroom, for all of its vaunted connections, could not put its hands on a copy, while the Times printed scoop after scoop.

“We were sucking their tailpipe,” Bradlee snorted. Or maybe he said “smelling their farts.” Whatever the vocabulary, it was not complimentary.

And while the Post was regurgitating its rival’s reporting, the very nervous publisher Katharine Graham was scheduled to take the company public.

“Kay was in a hell of jam,” Bradlee growled, “and there we were rewriting goddamn Brand X [Post newsroom lingo for the Times].” He found little redeeming in the memory.  

The fact that the Post finally obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers and wrote its own story, was, in Bradlee’s telling, a booby prize he didn’t much care for. Decades later, he was still embarrassed about being scooped on the biggest story of the year.

Countercultural Pressure

Out of such newsroom banter, director Steven Spielberg has spun The Post, a heartwarming journalistic yarn featuring Meryl Streep’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Graham as an insecure feminist heroine and Tom Hanks’ nuanced depiction of the brash Bradlee whose legend as crusading Watergate editor (burnished in the movie All the President’s Men) has obscured just how conventional he usually was (spoiler alert: though not always). 

Journalistically, the New York Times owned the Pentagon Papers story. Daniel Ellsberg, the disillusioned defense intellectual who stole the secret study, gave it to Times reporter Neil Sheehan (who would merely go on to write one of the best books ever about the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie).

Arthur Sulzberger, the owlish Times publisher, took the biggest risk in publishing a string of stories in the face of White House rage. President Richard Nixon sought a Supreme Court injunction to stop the Times from printing more stories, an unprecedented challenge to the First Amendment.

Cinematically, the Post stole the glory by finishing a distant second with a more interesting cast of characters.

Graham, born and bred to expectations of female deference, took over the Post in 1963 after the suicide of mentally ill husband Phil. Self-effacing in every way, she grew into the role of publisher, just as Bradlee, a clever Ivy League insider with CIA friends who was her first major hire, grew into the role of executive editor.

The dynamic that drives The Post is countercultural: how the antiwar movement pushed and pulled these two strong if conventional personalities into doing the right thing.  

The intense Ellsberg, played with steady aplomb by Matthew Rhys (best known as Philip Jennings on The Americans), is the moral motor of the movie. The first 20 minutes are devoted to how Ellsberg did what he set out to do: force others with less conviction to act.

A former Marine-turned-national security analyst, Ellsberg goes into combat in 1965 to see how the war is going and is nearly killed. He is appalled to watch his boss, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a social friend of Graham’s, then lie to the TV cameras about progress in Vietnam. So Ellsberg steals the secret Pentagon study with the goal of stopping the war. With the help of a couple of hippie friends, he copies all 7,000 pages of it.

When the Times publishes the story, the Post has to play catchup. What elevates Spielberg’s tale above hagiography is the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, which deftly evokes the predicament in which Graham and Bradlee found themselves.

Hollywood Revisionism

Politically, the Post was behind the times. The Style section was a catalog of female stereotypes. The editorial page fulminated in favor of the Vietnam War long after much of the country had turned against it (just as the paper’s editorial page would foolishly support the invasion of Iraq in 2003 despite massive and prescient public opposition, even in the newsroom).

The paper was compromised by its proximity to power. Graham was a social friend of McNamara's, just as Bradlee had been a pal of John F. Kennedy's, one of the presidents who had mouthed the platitudes of progress in Vietnam even as he privately resisted Pentagon demands for escalation.

When Graham refuses to ask McNamara for a copy of the Pentagon papers, Bradlee is furious. After the self-satisfied editor implies she is putting friendship over journalism, she silences him by noting he had done exactly that with JFK.

Spielberg's direction captures the distaste that Graham and Bradley, pure products of the Washington establishment, had for the unruly antiwar demonstrators in their peasant dresses and bell bottoms, even as they come to realize that Ellsberg and co. were right: that the time had come for people to act, to denounce, disrupt or otherwise challenge a wasteful and criminal war. Like it or not, they had to side with the scruffy antiwar demonstrators. They had to choose truth over power. To their everlasting credit, they did. 

In a decisive moment, exquisitely played by Streep, Graham realizes that she might have let her son (and successor) Don be killed in a useless war waged by her fidgety friend Bob McNamara. Her resolve turns steely. She overrules her male advisers, sides with Bradlee and decides to publish the Post story.

It makes for such a stirring finale on the big screen it hardly matters that I later heard Bradlee dismiss that same story as “nothing special."

The Post Today

Such Hollywood fictionalizing gives The Post its resonance today. When Graham walks out of the Supreme Court toward the end of the movie, the youthful antiwar demonstrators of yesterday have morphed into admiring young women who look very 21st-century.

Of course, the clanking industrial print newspaper business, celebrated in Janusz KamiÅ„ski’s loving cinematography, is now defunct, replaced by sleek digital infotainment platforms, but the journalistic challenge of holding a lawless government accountable remains.

How does the Washington Post of today compare with Spielberg’s Post? The editorial pages combine stout domestic liberalism with a predictably pro-war voice. The overall result is uninspiring. An infusion of Ellsbergian conviction about our ill-conceived, extra-constitutional expeditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Niger, would expand the Post’s audience and serve the country.

In the newsroom, publisher Jeff Bezos follows the Graham family tradition: a noblesse oblige owner committed to the importance of a daily newspaper to the life of a city and the health of a democracy. Like the Grahams, Bezos is also politically ambidextrous in the service of running a profitable business.

The Post's executive editor Marty Baron, the laconic hero of the Oscar-winning Spotlight, is less charismatic than Bradlee, but perhaps more independent. The left may mistrust Bezos' immense wealth and lament the Post’s neoconservative tendencies, but it is hard to dispute that Baron has spent his Amazonian cash flow well in the service of exposing President Trump’s lies, crimes and misdemeanors.

Media myths aside, Bezos and Baron are sinners, not saints, just as Graham and Bradlee were fallible people, not icons. In 2018, as in 1971, the test of editorial leadership is managing the inevitable tensions between the newsroom and the front office.

Critics want to know: Will Baron’s newsroom look into Amazon’s $600 million cloud computing contract with the CIA? The movie offers the clue of precedent. Did Ben Bradlee question Kay Graham’s friendship with Bob McNamara? Or his own cozying up to Jack Kennedy? Not until pride and politics forced him to a reckoning.

The drama of The Post movie is the challenge for today’s Post, and every other national news organization: to resist management pressure inside the newsroom while standing up to unaccountable power outside. That’s not just Hollywood mythmaking; that’s the nature of the news business.

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