Press freedom is now more important than ever. Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ provides an important lesson for us to learn about holding power accountable.
I fully agree with renown director Steven Spielberg that there is an urgency to make his latest movie, The Post. The 2017 movie is a stark reminder of the need to free the media from interferences of any kind, political or otherwise.
The Fourth Estate is the bedrock of democracy. No two ways about it. Whether we like it or not, democracy depends on a free press. Lacking that, democracy is flawed. Thomas Jefferson famously said that the press serves “as the public independent watchdog, charged with keeping governments, businesses and other organisations in check.”
Look at what has happened now. We are supposed to live in a freer world. The Internet is democracy at its best. But then, as we are unshackling ourselves from the yoke of media control, more and more leaders around the world are eyeing the press with scorn and distrust.
The United States is no exception. Under President Donald Trump, things have changed dramatically.
“Fake news” is now part of the administrative jargon. Trump has inspired other leaders to label even provable events and truths as fake these days. The US has never seen such distrust between the mainstream media and the government for some time.
The last time it had happened was when Richard Nixon was president.
Nixon was very much sceptical of the media. So one can imagine how he reacted to the expose in The New York Times in 1971 about what is known as The Pentagon Papers. The White House “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” for more than three decades regarding the Vietnam War.
The editor of the Washington Post at the time, Ben Bradlee (played in The Post by Tom Hanks), was devastated when the rival newspaper had the scoop.
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The Washington Post eventually got the entire set of documents and Bradlee was insistent they publish it in full. It was not an easy decision for the publisher, Katherine Graham (played with such sensitivity and finesse by Meryl Streep).
She was the only woman publisher of a mainstream newspaper. Her company was going for public listing. Yet, she believes too that quality will drive profitability. For the Washington Post to prosper and be respected, it has to be audacious, besides being fair and professional.
In the movie, Bradlee’s wife was right when she said: “To make this decision, to risk her fortune and the company that’s been her entire life – I think that’s brave.”
In a man’s world, Katherine was a contrarian. She was supposed to be meek and skittish. As the publisher, after inheriting the company from her late husband, her role was to socialise. As one of her directors told her: “Kay, people are concerned about having a woman in charge of the paper, that’s she doesn’t have the resolve to make tough choices.”
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In the case of the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, she stood by her editors, giving the go-ahead despite being warned that the paper would cease to exist if the government took court action and won.
It was history, but as told by Spielberg, the master of modern cinema, the episode was riveting, exhilarating and almost fulfilling. It was one of the best moments in modern cinema history.
With the publication of the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post was elevated from a regional newspaper to national prominence.
The Post (as the paper is better known) was never the same again. We all knew what happened after that.
It was The Washington Post that conducted investigative reporting on what was known as the “Watergate scandal”, which led to the resignation of Nixon.
The movie, All The President’s Men, based on the book by The Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, was directed by Alan J Pakula in 1976. In that movie, Ben Bradlee was played by Jason Robards.
Movies like The Post and All The President’s Men are delightful to watch. They are well directed and acted. More importantly, movies tend to leave an indelible mark on our conscience and consciousness. Both the movies remind us of how vulnerable the free press is.
Even today in the times of WikiLeaks and social media, newspapers still have a role to play. Yes, newspapers in its traditional form are under tremendous pressure to adapt. But predictions of the death of the print media are perhaps grossly exaggerated.
We all know there are still a substantial number of readers of print media out there.
And it is still influential especially among decision makers in all disciplines. But to stay relevant the media must prove its worth.
A free press contributes to good governance, empowerment and even in the fights against poverty and corruption.
Had Katherine Graham said “no” to Bradlee and his editors, imagine the media landscape thereafter.
Bradlee said this in the movie: “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
We ought to learn a thing or two from The Post.
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years, chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts.
This article is published in collaboration with The Star.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.