Spielberg’s The Post offers a masterclass in public leadership

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee celebrate the court’s decision in 1971 to allow publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Steven Spielberg’s film The Post combines three themes close to my heart: leadership, journalism and power – with an interesting gender dimension overlaying all three.

The film portrays the days in 1971 when the Washington Post faced a dilemma whether to publish leaked material, the Pentagon Papers, showing how successive American presidents had deceived the public about the country’s purpose and prospects in Vietnam. The scoop already belonged to the New York Times. But an opportunity to catch up arose for the Post when Nixon’s government obtained an injunction against the Times, and the Post obtained the material independently.

There have been criticisms that it is perverse of the film-makers to focus on the role of the Post in the the Pentagon Papers affair, when the Times was the bigger player and took the earlier risk. However, that is to misconstrue the drama in which the Pentagon Papers affair is merely the MacGuffin on which hangs a tale of press freedom and gender politics. It is precisely because the Post was the lesser player that it merits attention. It’s the story of how a faltering business, guided by a woman in a male-dominated world, steps into the big league and transforms itself into a pillar of democracy. The whole episode serves as a dress rehearsal for Watergate, when the Post made the running in holding Nixon to account and ultimately brought down his presidency.

At the time of the events, the Washington Post was not much more than a local newspaper, albeit a special one whose beat was the seat of federal government. Like the New York Times, which far outranked it in national profile, the Post was a family-owned company. Its proprietor, Katharine Graham, had not yet become a legend of newspaper publishing. At the time of the events, she had been in the chair for about eight years – taking over after her husband had committed suicide, and having previously been overlooked for the role by her father who had given control of the company to his son-in-law.

However, she was not quite the inexperienced housewife-turned-business-owner portrayed in the film. She’d worked as a journalist in San Francisco and on the Post itself. Nonetheless, it’s easy to believe she may have felt at sea through the events portrayed. The Pentagon Papers affair coincided with her taking the company public. She was surrounded by commercial advisors who feared the banks would baulk at a floating in the midst of controversy. On the other hand, she shared the ambition of her editor, Ben Bradlee, to strengthen the editorial credibility of the paper. Both the newsroom and the boardroom are represented as male preserves in which Graham’s status is scarcely noticed: she’s treated as a puppet by the money men and as a potential roadblock by the editorial staff. In the background, Nixon is running a vendetta against the Post, so the stakes could not be much higher when Graham has to decide whether to publish in defiance of the injunction already obtained against the Times.

There’s a pivotal scene in which Graham considers whether the company’s interest lies in playing things safe for the sake of the floatation or betting the farm on being a standard bearer of the public interest. As Oxfam has discovered, this kind of decision is a false choice. Had she opted for safety first, the Post would have been finished as a serious editorial enterprise. There would have been newsroom resignations and the public would see that the Post had failed the test of press freedom. It may have maintained an existence as a viable provincial company, but it would struggle to enjoy trust and credibility on the national stage. Graham sees that the floatation document positions the paper on the ground of high-quality, independent journalism and realises that the business depends on integrity to this purpose. She bets on investors appreciating the long-term game. In doing so, she sweeps aside the patriarchal pretensions of her besuited advisors, asserting her right and duty as the company owner to take the decision.

Graham is remembered as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper and the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. These are impressive achievements. But even greater was her ability to use these positions to exercise stewardship. For she was the custodian not only of her company’s interest, but also of the public’s interest in facing down unaccountable executive power. The timeliness of the film in relation to the Trump presidency is evident; the Post and the Times are again to the fore in America’s ecology of checks and balances.

Bradlee argues in the film that for the Post to comply with the injunction against the Times would be an act of collusion. He says it’s incumbent on the press to exercise their freedom to publish, otherwise freedom of the press does not exist. The subsequent Supreme Court judgment upheld his position:

“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Besides the political resonance , there’s another timeliness in that the events in the story and their portrayal in the film bracket the neoliberal era. Viewed from 2018, the sense of caution imposed by the involvement of finance is wearingly familiar; the willingness of a business owner to fly in the face of received financial wisdom refreshingly shocking. There was plenty of cynical business in the 1970s. The rise of the market ideology was a corrective to some of it. But the trade-off it introduced between the public interest and the private interest went too far. Spielberg’s film signifies that we are ready to learn that lesson.

Image courtesy Katherine Graham Estate.