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‘The Post’ Makes the Case for a Free and Independent Press

The whistleblower film “The Post” was up for two Academy Awards, its critical success powered by Meryl Streep’s stellar performance as Katharine Graham, the legendary owner of The Washington Post. Many have lauded its story for putting the principle of freedom of the press in the public spotlight.

But a more important contribution may be in the film’s uncompromising take on the importance of an independent press, not just a free one. The freedom of the press to “speak truth to power” means little without a willingness to exercise this right, and this principle is at the heart of the movie.

Free speech rights—for all Americans, not just the press—are guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment, the great achievement of its “architect,” the future president James Madison. At the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified, newspapers were prized watchdogs of government misdeeds, cherished by the founding generation for their ability to publish what they wanted, when they wanted. When Madison crafted the amendment’s language, he specifically aimed to protect the press from government intrusion. He even argued for a broader interpretation of a free press than was enshrined under English common law.

Fast forward to the 1960s, by which time some newspapers, including The Washington Post, had cozied up routinely to entrenched elites to gain access to power rather than calling out their misdeeds. Katharine Graham and her husband, Phillip, were prime culprits, active on the Washington social scene and counting John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert McNamara and many other power elites as personal friends. When Graham inherited the newspaper from her husband upon his death in 1963, she showed little appetite for giving up her social status.

“The Post” is the story of the newspaper’s “coming of age” as it pursued a course of independence to take on the federal government. When, in 1971, the New York Times started publishing a series of articles based on a leaked classified study showing the federal government deceived and outright lied to the public and Congress about the prospects for winning the war in Vietnam—what are now called The Pentagon Papers—The Washington Post followed suit.

But the Washington newspaper was playing catch up until the federal government ordered the New York Times to stop publishing articles for “national security” reasons. Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee then made a bold decision: The Post would seek out a copy of the report and continue publishing stories on its content.

Graham and Bradlee’s decision to run the stories after a federal court ordered the New York Times to cease and desist was an act of courage. Had the government shut down the Washington Post, the family-owned newspaper would likely have gone bankrupt. Despite this credible existential risk, Graham and Bradlee stood on their principles and continued to publish news articles based on the leaked documents.

The courts eventually sided with the Times and the Washington Post, although that outcome was never certain or obvious.

At one point in the movie, while Graham and Bradlee are discussing the potential implications of publishing the Pentagon Papers, Graham becomes pensive and disheartened, disappointed that her friend Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense from 1961 to 1968, had lied to her about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. She feels betrayed, believing that he had used their personal relationship to compromise her editorial judgement.

Bradlee then points out that she was just as guilty as McNamara, because she used her connections with the political elite to get special access to key players. The scene is hard-hitting, anchoring the movie plot in a fundamental principle of democracy.

The aftermath of the Pentagon Papers’ release saw an emboldened Washington Post take on the illegal and duplicitous acts that became Watergate and led to the resignation of President Nixon. The leaked document also hastened the U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam War.

Today, few doubt the newspaper’s independence, or willingness to go after what it believes is corrupt activity, even as the Trump administration routinely assaults and trivializes the press with flippant charges of “fake news” and restrictions on access to the White House spin.

In this climate, “The Post” makes the case for adhering to James Madison’s prescient observations about the importance of a free and independent press even more timely and relevant.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University.