Birth of a Paper: The Post, Post-Screening

Lucas Lin, JRC Reporter Evelyn Shue, Julie Yang, Editors The CAPA JRC, like many others of its kind, is a news publication. From the Boston Herald to the San Francisco Chronicle, our goal is all the same: to bring information to the general people, informed readers interested in the world we live in. As we look back on a history of journalism in America, few papers have made their mark quite so profoundly as the Washington Post, stationed locally here in Washington DC. In January, the CAPA JRC viewed a screening of the critically-acclaimed historical thriller The Post (2017), directed by Steven Spielberg. The classic American Film Institute (AFI) Silver in Silver Spring provided the setting for the group of young reporters and photographers to learn more about the cultural significance of the Washington Post, its history, and the role of media, whether print or digital, today.

Following a brief introduction by AFI Silver staff Mary Beth Waits, The Post began the story of how the Pentagon Papers thrust the unassuming, “home business” Washington Post into the spotlight against the Nixon Administration of 1970 and its attack on print publications. Meryl Streep played Katharine Graham, the president and de facto publisher of the Washington Post following the death of her father Eugene Meyer and husband Phil Graham. Rowdy editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, serves as her vigorous, spirited co-worker and best friend, passionate about the truth and the opportunities opened by the Pentagon Paper leaks. After the New York Times is taken to court by Attorney General John N. Mitchell, the duo scramble to make monumental decisions that would affect the future of free information as the case New York Times Co. v. United States moves up quickly to the Supreme Court.

The Post began the story of how the Pentagon Papers thrust the unassuming, “home business” Washington Post into the spotlight against the Nixon Administration of 1970 and its attack on print publications.

The Post brings together many timeless themes that may be more important now than ever in modern America, half a century after the events of the movie. A side of the story of the Washington Post that isn’t brought to attention often enough is Graham’s immense pressure as the paper’s president. Throughout the course of the film, Graham faces power struggles during the Post’s stock-market launch and its print decisions as a board of directors and lawyers question her executive decisions, chalking up her mistakes and lack of leadership to her “working a man’s job.” By the end, however, Graham is beaming as she walks out of the Supreme Court Building after its monumental 6-3 decision in favor of protecting the rights of the Times and the Post.

A side of the story of the Washington Post that isn’t brought to attention often enough is Graham’s immense pressure as the paper’s president.

While her male coworkers answer questions from eager reporters on the events of the day, Graham walks down the marble steps holding the admiring yet modest gazes of women proud to witness her pleasure in paving the way for aspiring journalists looking to lead and make history. The real life Katharine Graham’s Personal History (1997), a Pulitzer-Prize winning autobiography, covers her reactions to these events, as well as her somber memory of her husband, his mental illness, and the Post as it evolved under them.

Another theme explored is the complex dynamic between the government, the free press, and information. The problems of the Nixon Administration as exposed by The Post bleed into today, those being censorship and criticising the media. While the 6-3 Supreme Court decision was monumental, it didn’t guarantee the safety of the press. “If there is a way to destroy your paper, by God [Nixon]’ll find it” is the warning given by Secretary of Defense McNamara in the film to Graham and Bradlee after he is ousted by the Times about his complacency in politics surrounding the Vietnam War. Threats from this era can be seen today as American news outlets are in direct conflict with the Trump Administration, which labels dissenting media as “fake news.” In a recent stunning interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly found that he dodged questions about Iran foreign policy and Ukraine, and even belittled her on being so driven to find answers to report. This event and similar ones in recent years have caused bans from White House press events, which forced reporters to tread carefully with their lines of questioning. In addition, White House press conferences have dwindled in number, from being bi-monthly to almost nonexistent in recent years. As Ben Bagdikian, the Post reporter who finds the leaker of the Pentagon Papers for the Post, puts it, ““The press is to serve the governed, not the governors.”

(Picture by Lucy Wu) “A reporter must always be a skeptic, never a cynic.” said Waits’ mother, Eileen Shanahan, the first female editor-in-chief of the GWU newspaper, The Hatchet, who gave this advice to prospective journalists in the JRC. What The Post can teach us is the due diligence of news and media to represent information and events. In addition, it’s the duty of us as readers to take in information and follow it to ensure that our rights, freedoms, and democracy are protected in the face of a censoring, restrictive government that may manifest in our future. As Phil Graham said, “news is only the first rough draft of history.” It is the duty of us, the children of history, to continue it forward.

“A reporter must always be a skeptic, never a cynic.”

(Photograph by Lucy Wu)

This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 19 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.

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