I saw The Post tonight. I should say that I finally saw the Post. It’s a movie I wanted to see in a mostly empty theatre so I could be alone with my thoughts about Steven Spielberg’s creation. And thoughts I have! And share them I will…. eventually.
A number of government folks will say today that the press’s pugnacity post-Pentagon papers was a creation of the 6 to 3 court decision’s turgid prose. That a sort of oppositional defiant disorder did not exist in nature; that there was never a common law understanding of the press’s role in a a democracy, so that the press and the government had a shared understanding of what constituted national security and bargained informally, more or less towards a status quo, beforehand. They argue further that this understanding benefited both sides. The press would be responsible and so the government would not invoke the Espionage Act to prosecute them, nor would it seek to enjoin publication.
The movie gets the conceit at the heart of this pretty well. (The government lied, and government officials, including Jack Kennedy, abused their social “friendships” with journalists to perpetuate policies that killed hundreds of thousands of human beings without reason)….
It doesn’t quite get at the fissures within the press; an increasing number of journalists, editors and publishers were increasingly militant about policing government power because of Vietnam and the Civil Rights crusades of the decades prior; the field of journalism was already debating how close (if at all) journalists had to keep their sources; a number of prominent voices — Neil Sheehan was one of them — argued that the status quo preserved by tacit bargaining was archaic and served only to comfort the comfortable who were increasingly resorting to out and out lies to keep the afflicted from knowing how afflicted they really were. The New York Times and the Washington Post were not the leaders of this debate, but as the most powerful journalistic institutions in the country, outside of perhaps CBS News, it was perhaps inevitable that they would wind up resolving it, at least temporarily.