W. Joseph Campbell

‘The Post’: Bad history = bad movie

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Reviews, Washington Post on January 2, 2018 at 11:15 am

You might think, as the New York Times pointed out in reviewing Steven Spielberg’s much-praised new movie, The Post, that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story” would be “an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”

And yet, there it is: A hagiographic treatment about a newspaper, the Washington Post, that was beaten by the New York Times in 1971 in exposing the Defense Department’s voluminous secret history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers.

After the Times published lengthy articles drawn from the archive, the administration of President Richard M. Nixon obtained a restraining order that barred the newspaper from running further reports about the Papers.

Soon, the Post obtained copies of portions of the archive and began publishing reports of its own until it, too, came under a federal court order to desist. Both newspapers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the end of June 1971 won a 6-to-3 verdict lifting the restraints.

The movie’s centerpiece is that the Post and its senior leadership — Katharine Graham, the publisher, and Ben Bradlee, the executive editor — showed great courage in risking jail as they hoisted the banner of press freedom while the Times was prevented from reporting about the Papers.

It’s a heroic statement, but the emphasis is misplaced.

To concentrate on the Post’s subsidiary role in the Pentagon Papers saga is to distort the historical record for dramatic effect. The underlying history is dubious, which means The Post is no success.

How credible, really, was the prospect of jailtime for Graham and Bradlee?

It was the Times that had taken the steepest risks; when it began publishing excerpts from the Papers, the newspaper’s executives couldn’t have known for sure how the Nixon administration might react, even if the Papers had been compiled before Nixon took office in 1969. By the time the Post had obtained portions of the archive, it had to have been fairly clear that the administration would seek to block publication but not attempt to send the newspaper’s principals to jail.

Indeed, Nixon’s early reaction to the disclosures of the Papers was to punish the leaker, later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, rather than go after the press.

That reaction was captured on Nixon’s infamous White House audiotapes, the contents of which sealed his fate in the Watergate scandal a few years later. In a conversation with one his top aides, John Ehrlichman, soon after the Times published its first excerpts, Nixon declared:

Hell, I wouldn’t prosecute the Times. My view is to prosecute the goddamn pricks that gave it to ’em.

That portion in the White House tapes is incorporated into a scene in The Post.

Not only was it unlikely that Nixon would attempt to send Graham and Bradlee to jail for following up the Times’ revelations, it was almost unthinkable that Bradlee would have countenanced any decision other than publish the Post’s excerpts.

Refrain from publishing while the Times was sidelined? Such a prospect was unthinkable to Bradlee, as David Rudenstine made clear in his study of the case, The Day the Presses Stopped.

“In Bradlee’s mind,” Rudenstine wrote, “not publishing was tantamount to being a coward, and Bradlee recoiled at the idea. Also, Bradlee actually relished the idea of a court battle with the Nixon administration.”

Elsewhere, Rudenstine noted:

“Bradlee was at fever pitch over the idea of publication. The Post was at a crucial stage in its development. It had steadily gained strength over the years. It now had the resources and the talent to become a major national newspaper,  and the Pentagon Papers would allow the Post to take a giant stride toward its goal. … If the Post did not publish, everyone would assume that — unlike the Times — the Post was intimidated by Nixon and [John] Mitchell,” the U.S. attorney general.

Spielberg’s movie captures only some of that thinking. Bradlee is played by Tom Hanks, who turns in a mediocre performance.

Hanks’ Bradlee is rumpled and sometimes speaks in a strange accent of undetermined derivation. It seems vaguely Southern.

Whatever. The accent is a distraction that inevitably brings to mind Jason Robards’ highly polished, Oscar-winning portrayal of Bradlee in All the President’s Men, another cinematic treatment of the journalist as hero — one that deepened media myths about the Post’s Watergate reporting.

Hanks in The Post is no Robards.

Spielberg’s movie is transparently a vehicle for Meryl Streep, who plays Katharine Graham. But not especially well or convincingly.

The Post is hardly Streep’s finest role. Or even her finest media role. She was far better playing an icy editor of a fashion magazine in The Devil Wears Prada.

Streep’s Graham is an often-confused, sometimes-simpering woman keenly unsure of herself even though she had overseen the newspaper for nearly eight years by the time the Pentagon Papers broke.

Streep: Icy in ‘Prada’

Her portrayal of Graham is cloying and unpersuasive. For most of the movie, Graham is overwhelmed by the responsibilities and challenges of being publisher. As the Pentagon Papers break, Graham and her advisers were about to make a public offering of $35 million in Post shares; running excerpts from the archive could complicate those plans.

But abruptly, during an internal debate about whether the Post should publish its reports about the Papers, Graham finds backbone. She brushes aside objections from lawyers and investment bankers and says, yes, go ahead. Publish.

It seems all so cliched.

By focusing on Graham and her character development, Spielberg can justify making the movie about the Post. But ultimately there’s no escaping the newspaper’s lesser role in the Pentagon Papers case.

The Papers wasn’t the Post’s story. On that one, the Post moved in a slipstream created by the Times.

Times executives and reporters make infrequent appearances in The Post, but Spielberg mostly portrays them as secretive, suspicious, not especially likable, and not very heroic. But they were the men who obtained the Papers, devoted three months to a painstaking review of the contents, and took on the risks by publishing them first.

That’s the better story. And more accurate.

The Post clearly attempts to assert the importance of a free and searching press these days, during the presidency of Donald Trump, who has little love for the news media, as they have little for him. The not-so-subtle messaging brought to mind a lengthy essay about Hollywood and history, written years ago by Richard Bernstein and published in the Times.

Among other topics, Bernstein addressed “the transformation of movie makers and actors into commentators and philosophers,” and observed:

“Of course, movie makers have the right to their opinions, just like anyone else. What is disturbing is the public’s granting to them — and to the enormously powerful medium they control — a special role to comment on both our past and our present.”

It is faintly amusing to note, in reading Bernstein’s commentary, how little controversy is stirred any more when movie makers openly and routinely assume the mantle of commentator and advocate.

WJC

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NYT turns obscure statement into prominent blurb to tout its Pentagon Papers reporting

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Error, New York Times, Quotes, Reviews, Washington Post on December 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm

“The most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The New York Times has turned recently to that expansive claim, most conspicuously in a full-page advertisement, to suggest the rival Washington Post once praised the Times for disclosing the Pentagon Papers.

The quotation has been interpreted as the Times’ giving the Washington Post a thumb in the eye amid the much-ballyhooed limited release of Steven Spielberg‘s cinematic hagiography, The Post.

The movie dramatizes the Washington Post’s secondary role in reporting on the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — a focus surely irritating to the Times. (The Times’ review of the film observed that “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.”)

The quotation attributed to the Washington Post and seeming to commend the Times appears as a front-cover blurb for a new book that brings together the Times’ award-winning articles about the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s once-secret history of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The quotation was displayed prominently in a full-page advertisement the Times published the other day (see image nearby) to call attention to the book. The quotation also appears at a Web page promoting the book at the Times’ online store.

But when did the Washington Post make that statement?

Not in the aftermath of the Times’ disclosures of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971, as the blurb may suggest: A search of the full-text ProQuest database containing Washington Post content from 1877 through 1997 turned up no such statement.

Front cover blurb

A similar — but somewhat less assertive — statement appeared in the Washington Post in June 2011, in an 850-word article about the government’s declassification of the Pentagon Papers. That article was retrieved from the Nexis database and from a search on Google. Its opening sentence reads:

“The disclosure of the Pentagon Papers four decades ago stands as one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

As “one of the most significant leaks of classified material in American history.”

The Washington Post’s report also noted that declassification came “40 years to the day after portions were first disclosed by the New York Times.” But the article did not commend the Times for the revelations — an interpretation that’s certainly suggested by the blurb in the ad and on the book cover.

I asked the Times’ communications staff about the derivation of the quotation and was directed to this site, a rudimentary searchable archive the Washington Post set up, probably in 2011, to permit readers to review the declassified Pentagon Papers. An introductory statement posted at the site said:

“Four decades after the most significant leaks of classified material in American history, the Pentagon Papers have remained classified — until now. Read the full archive of the declassified documents as released by the National Archives and Records Administration.”

So that’s the source of the statement that the Times has invoked as a money quote to tout and recall its enterprise on the Pentagon Papers. The Washington Post said it, but clearly in a trivial and off-hand way. It was no prominent pronouncement. Or even a passage in a news article or commentary.

It was made obscurely, and it said nothing about the Times’ enterprise.

The Times’ turning the obscure statement into a prominent blurb underscores that its rivalry with the Washington Post remains keen. Of late, the Times has seemed eager to direct attention to its disclosures about the Pentagon Papers, in light of the favorable reviews of Spielberg’s movie, which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

The Post was undeniably beaten on the Pentagon Papers story in 1971; it started printing excerpts of its own after the federal government enjoined the Times from publishing reports it had prepared drawn from the secret history. Soon after its excerpts began appearing, the Post was similarly restrained by a federal appeals court.

Both newspapers appealed to the Supreme Court which, at the end of June 1971, invalidated the government’s restraint in a 6-to-3 decision and the injunctions were lifted.

The Times’ reporting on the Pentagon Papers won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The Post won no Pulitzers that year.

Writing at the “Deadline Hollywood” entertainment news site the other day, Jeremy Gerard discussed the Times’ recent full-page book ad, calling it “a puckish thumb-in-the-eye to the competition” and noting that the “promo is topped with a money quote – ‘The most significant leaks of classified material in American history’ – from, that’s right, the Washington Post.”

WJC

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Taking stock: Top mythbusting posts of 2017

In 'Napalm girl', Cinematic treatments, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on December 26, 2017 at 8:01 am

Media Myth Alert directed attention in 2017 to the appearance of a number of well-known media-driven myths, which are prominent tales about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

Here is a rundown of the five top posts of the year at Media Myth Alert, which was established at the end of October 2009, a few months before publication of the first edition of Getting It Wrong. An expanded second edition of the mythbusting book came out in late 2016.

Vox offers up myth of the ‘Napalm Girl’ in essay about ‘fake news’ (posted July 6): “Fake news” was much in the media in 2017, and in addressing the phenomenon, the online site Vox invoked one of the media myths associated with the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of June 1972.

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

Vox  asserted that the image showed “a naked 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running from the United States’ napalm bombing of her village during the Vietnam War.”

It was not a U.S. bombing. As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force — as news reports made quite clear at the time.

For example, a veteran British journalist, Christopher Wain, wrote in a dispatch for the United Press International wire service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The notion that U.S. warplanes dropped the napalm that burned the girl and others is false, but enduring.

And Vox has not corrected its error.

The photographer who took the “Napalm Girl” image, Nick Ut of the Associated Press, retired from the news agency at the end of March 2017.

After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy (posted February 23): We are certain to hear fairly often about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” in 2018, especially around the 50th anniversary in February of the on-air editorializing by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who famously declared the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam.

Cronkite’s assessment is said to have been so powerful and shocking that it came as an epiphany for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who suddenly realized his war policy was in tatters.

It’s a compelling story of media influence. But it’s hardly what happened.

Not only did Johnson not see Cronkite’s special report when it aired on February 27, 1968; the president doubled down on his Vietnam policy in the days and weeks afterward, mounting an aggressive and outspoken defense of his policy while making clear he had not taken the Cronkite’s message to heart — if he was aware of it at all.

Just three days after Cronkite’s program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

In mid-March 1968, Johnson told a meeting of business leaders in Washington: “We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

A few days later, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

So at a time when Cronkite’s view about Vietnam should have been most potent and influential, Johnson remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war. On several occasions, the president effectively brushed aside Cronkite’s assessment and encouraged popular support for the war effort.

Johnson’s assertiveness at that time is little remembered, while the “Cronkite Moment” remains one of American journalism’s most enduring and appealing media myths.

‘Mark Felt’ biopic worse than its negative reviews (posted October 14): Long before its release in late September 2017, Peter Landesman’s biopic of Watergate’s mythical and most famous secret source, W. Mark Felt, was ballyhooed in the Hollywood press as a “spy thriller.”

The movie was grandiose in its title, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.” But its script was a tedious mess that offered no coherent insight into Watergate or what really toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.

Felt, who was played by Liam Neeson, was a top official at the FBI who in 1972 and 1973 conferred periodically with Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post’s lead reporters on the Watergate scandal. In All the President’s Men, a book about their Watergate reporting for the Post, Woodward and Carl Bernstein referred to Felt as “Deep Throat.”

Felt’s clandestine meetings with Woodward took place in a parking garage in suburban Virginia and became the stuff of legend — not to mention media myth.

About the time he was conferring with Woodward, Felt was authorizing illegal break-ins — known at the FBI as “black bag jobs” — at homes of relatives and associates of fugitives of the domestic terrorist group Weather Underground.

Felt was indicted in 1978 for approving illegal entries and searches. He was tried with an FBI colleague; both were convicted and ordered to pay fines. They were pardoned in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.

A far better biopic about Felt could have been developed around his criminal misconduct in investigating the Weather Underground. Such a movie could have been a study of the corrupting tendencies of almost-unchecked power, which Felt wielded for a time at the FBI. Instead, Landesman produced a plodding cinematic treatment that was rewarded with no better than modest receipts at the box office.

WaPo’s media writer embraces Watergate myths (posted October 7): The identity of “Deep Throat” remained a secret for more than 30 years — until Felt and his family revealed in 2005 that he had been the secret source. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, took the occasion to offer an important reminder about Watergate and the forces that had ended Nixon’s presidency.

Getler wrote in a column in June 2005 that “it was not The Post, but the FBI, a Congress acting in bipartisan fashion and the courts that brought down the Nixon administration.”

In October 2017, one of Getler’s distant successors at the Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan, revisited the lessons of Watergate in an essay in Columbia Journalism Review — and embraced the trope that the Post and Woodward and Bernstein were central to bringing down Nixon’s presidency.

I call it the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate.

In her essay, Sullivan declared, without documentation, that Woodward and Bernstein had “uncovered the Nixon administration’s crimes and the cover-up that followed. In time, their stories helped to bring down a president who had insisted, ‘I am not a crook.’”

Woodward and Bernstein most certainly did not uncover Nixon’s obstruction. That was revealed in 1974, not long before Nixon resigned, in the release of a previously secret White House tape on which the president can be heard approving a scheme to divert the FBI’s investigation into the burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters — the signal crime of Watergate.

Nor did Woodward and Bernstein reveal the Nixon’s administration’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

That was made quite clear long ago, in a mostly hagiographic account that the Columbia Journalism Review published in summer 1973, about a year before Nixon quit.

Deep in that article was a passage noting that Woodward and Bernstein had “missed perhaps the most insidious acts of all — the story of the coverup and the payment of money to the Watergate defendants [charged and tried in the burglary] to buy their silence.”

The article quoted Woodward as saying about the cover-up: “It was too high. It was held too close. Too few people knew.

We couldn’t get that high.”

Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was hardly decisive to the outcome of Watergate.

And Sullivan’s myth-embracing claims in Columbia Journalism Review remain uncorrected.

Imagining Richard Nixon’s ‘secret planfor Vietnam (posted November 14): About two weeks before Minnesota Public Radio dismissed him for inappropriate workplace behavior, storyteller Garrison Keillor wrote an essay in which he imagined paying a return visit to New York City of 1961.

The thought was “unbearable,” he wrote, because “I’d have to relive the 1963 assassination [of President John F. Kennedy] and stay in grad school to dodge the draft and hear Richard Nixon say that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam.”

Were he somehow to make a return to the ’60s, Keillor would never hear Nixon touting a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Certainly not as a campaign pledge for the presidency in 1968 when, as a hoary media myth has it, Nixon cynically proclaimed having a “secret plan” to end the war.

But in fact, Nixon pointedly disavowed such a claim.

In an article published March 28, 1968, in the Los Angeles Times, Nixon was quoted as saying he had “no gimmicks or secret plans” for Vietnam.

“If I had any way to end the war,” he also was quoted as saying, “I would pass it on to President [Lyndon] Johnson.” (Nixon’s remarks were made just a few days before Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.)

Nixon may or may not have had a “secret plan” in mind in 1968. But it was neither a topic nor a plank of his campaign that year, and that is clear in reviewing search results of a full-text database of leading U.S. newspapers in 1968. The titles include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

The search period was January 1, 1967, to January 1, 1969, and search terms were “Nixon” and “secret plan.” No articles were returned in which Nixon was quoted as saying he had a “secret plan” for Vietnam. Had Nixon touted a “secret plan” during his campaign, leading U.S. newspapers surely would have mentioned it.

Keillor’s odd musings about returning to the ’60s were not the first time he’s indulged in media myth.

In a “Writer’s Almanac” podcast aired on NPR in April 2015, Keillor asserted that “in 1898,” newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst “sent the artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to cover the war. And Remington wrote home, ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled.’

“And he was told, ‘You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.’ And the Hearst newspapers did their best to promulgate what came to be called the Spanish-American War.”

The Remington-Hearst anecdote, featuring Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war,” is one of the best-known in American journalism. But it is apocryphal, for reasons addressed in detail in the opening chapter of Getting It Wrong.

WJC

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