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How ‘The Post’ stood up to the power of the presidency

In the film "The Post," editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham must obtain the Pentagon Papers and then decide whether to defy a court order by publishing the classified history of the Vietnam War. A story about a consequential moment in American history, press freedom and national security, it's also about Graham finding her way in a male-dominated world. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight- President Trump's approach to and battles with many in the news media have been a consistent feature of the first year of his presidency.

    Similar tensions resonate in a new movie about how a former president battled the press. That fight was over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, secret documents about the war in Vietnam, a milestone case for press freedom and the First Amendment.

    It all started with The New York Times, but the fight was soon joined by The Washington Post.

    Jeffrey Brown has a look behind the movie and the events of that era.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    June 1971.

  • Meryl Streep:

    Do you have the papers?

  • Tom Hanks:

    Not yet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But he soon would. The papers were the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War created by the Defense Department.

    In the film "The Post," Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, and publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep, must obtain the papers and then decide whether to defy a court order and publish them. The all-star project, directed by Steven Spielberg, takes on big and consequential history, and issues of press freedom and national security that resonate to today.

    But Liz Hannah, the screenwriter, later joined by Josh Singer, says her focus was on a smaller individual story, about Katharine Graham, the high society woman thrust into leadership of her family-owned paper, finding her way in a male-dominated world.

  • Liz Hannah:

    This was the first Fortune 500 CEO who is a woman, and she had been told her whole life that she wasn't good enough. And then she was put in this position where she had to make this choice and she had to find her voice.

    And there is something very universal about that. There's something about that, to me, that is very relatable. I have spent many times in a room where I'm the only woman or I'm the odd man out. And that's the story I think that we need now, is the story of people finding their voices.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The real Katharine Graham told her own story, including taking over the paper after her husband's suicide, in a memoir that would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, and spoke of it in interview on the NewsHour.

  • Katharine Graham:

    I didn't really transform myself. Working transformed me, and I went to work not thinking that my role would develop as it did.

    I went to work because I found that I owned the controlling shares of the company, and I thought, well, if this is so, I need to learn what it is that's at stake here, and what the issues are, because maybe someday I will have to make some sort of decision that I have to be intelligent about. So I had better know.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The film is set as The Washington Post Company is about to go public, so the stakes for Graham were especially high. We see the cozy relationships she had with key political figures, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, played by Bruce Greenwood, the very person who'd commissioned the Pentagon Papers, and then pushed to have them kept from public view.

  • Bruce Greenwood:

    If you publish, you will get the very worst of them, the Colsons and the Ehrlichmans. And he will crush you.

  • Meryl Streep:

    I know. He's just awful. But I…

  • Bruce Greenwood:

    He's a — Nixon is a son of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED). He hates you. He hates Ben. He's wanted to ruin the paper for years. And you will not get a second chance, Kay.

    The Richard Nixon I know will muster the full power of the presidency, and if there's a way to destroy your paper, by God, he will find it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Pentagon Papers were originally leaked to New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who came to believe the government was lying about the progress of the war.

    Ellsberg spoke in 2010 on the PBS program "POV."

  • Daniel Ellsberg:

    As the Pentagon Papers showed — and I have often said that I feel very regretful that I had not put out those documents when I could have in 1964 and '65 — I think, that a war really might have been avoided.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Times' reporters spent three months studying the papers.

    James Goodale, then lead counsel for The Times, told me there was a lot on the line.

  • James Goodale:

    The news people were very concerned that they had fake documents. They didn't know who Ellsberg was. And they didn't care who he was, because they wanted to make their own determination whether the documents they had were authentic. If they were not authentic, it would be very hard for The New York Times to recover from that blow.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    On June 13, 1971, The Times began publishing stories, until the Nixon administration, claiming a violation of the Espionage Act, secured a court injunction against the paper, a first in American history.

    The movie version focuses on The Washington Post's efforts to play catchup, its success at getting hold of the papers, and then the decision to publish while The Times was silenced.

    In a landmark First Amendment decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the two newspapers.

    Tom Hanks told me recently how the story resonated for him, then and now.

  • Tom Hanks:

    The truth was so volatile and so — what is the word I'm looking for? Almost so — so toxic, at that time the present day, that no one wanted to talk about it.

    And Ben Bradlee and The Washington Post for — and Kay Graham, for about a week, not only altered the state of their newspaper empire, but they also altered the state of the First Amendment and the history of the world. By what? By what? By printing the truth. Dear lord, if that's a dangerous thing to do, we're in a bad place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In fact, in the midst of our current period of media and White House contention, director Steven Spielberg decided to rush the film into production. He spoke at a recent forum.

  • Steven Spielberg:

    There were a lot of fires being lit, and, of course, the evening news was lighting most of the fires. But we really felt that we could get into the national conversation and make this movie as quickly as possible, and make it as well as we possibly could.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The film has received mostly glowing reviews, and, though losing out at the recent Golden Globes, is expected to compete for Oscar and other awards.

    One criticism, its focus on The Post, when the rival New York Times deserves the credit. Former Times counsel James Goodale calls it a good film, bad history.

  • James Goodale:

    Although a producer has artistic license, I think it should be limited in a situation such as this, so the public comes away with an understanding of what the true facts are in this case.

    And I think that, if you're doing a movie now, when Trump is picking on the press for fake news, you want to be authentic. You don't want to be in any way fake.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The film's co-writer, Liz Hannah, though, believes it gives The Times its due.

  • Liz Hannah:

    The work that Neil Sheehan did with Dan Ellsberg and with his team at The Times was remarkable, and we wouldn't have the Pentagon Papers if it weren't for them. And that is a story in and of itself.

    But the story that I wanted to tell was the story of Kay Graham, and then the story of how Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee became the superhero team that we know them as. And this was really the beginning of this team. This is the team that led to Watergate.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Indeed, the Pentagon Papers story was followed just one year later by the Watergate break-in that would lead to the downfall of President Nixon, not to mention another famous film about The Washington Post.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington.

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