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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The Post. What a fantastic movie on so many levels!
I saw it recently with my family and, except for someone who kept falling asleep and snoring behind us, we really enjoyed this truly inspiring movie. The actual events surrounding the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam conflicts here at home all flooded back to mind (yes, I am that old). But the movie brought in more detail and information than I ever knew. It filled the theater with suspense despite knowing the ultimate outcome. It reminded me again of just how vulnerable our First Amendment rights are, and how easy it is for an administration of government to take them away.
The U.S. Constitution doesn’t actually grant us our rights, it is just a slip of paper. Rather, it challenges us to physically inhabit those rights for ourselves. It lays the framework for an active civic process. Each generation must secure their rights anew under our Constitutional framework.
It was twice said in the movie that the right to publish the news is secured by publishing it, not by arguing about it. Our rights can wither in debate but can only strengthen when exercised. That is a lesson we must pass along to every generation.
Two present day examples of this principle come to mind. NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem is an actual exercise of our First Amendment rights, while the ensuing debate did little to strengthen our right to protest. A second example comes from a local news story of a lawyer who was stopped in her car by a police officer. The officer asked her if she knew why he had stopped her. She said she refused to answer the question, but otherwise cooperated and gave him her documents. The officer was so upset that she wouldn’t answer his question that he arrested her for not following a “legal” command. As he put her in the back of his police car he read her that familiar Miranda warning, which says in part, “You have a right to remain silent…” She remained under arrest for hours before being released. She later won a modest settlement in a suit brought against the Department for her unlawful arrest. The story generated a lot of debate while her actions helped secure our actual rights.
But back to the movie. I also came away with a profound appreciation for the incredible heroine depicted so well by Meryl Streep.
Katharine Graham was a socialite and heiress to the Washington Post, which was a local newspaper at that time. Her father founded the paper and left her husband in charge. Then her husband died suddenly leaving all of this crushing responsibility for the newspaper on her.
Ms. Graham was ill prepared for her role as publisher in most aspects. But she had an incredibly noble character and somehow managed to summon enormous strength to do the right thing under threats of disaster. She was a woman alone in a man’s world, yet she rose to meet the challenges. Her courage saved the Post and helped save the First Amendment for a generation to come. Her decision to publish the stolen, top secret Pentagon Papers exposed decades of government lies about Vietnam and helped bring that war to an end. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the freedom of the press in publishing that information set the stage for journalism’s victory in holding the Nixon administration accountable to the rule of law following the Watergate break in.
Contrast that with how the government is acting in the Edward Snowden matter today, for example, consider the public good Snowden has done in exposing illegal, unconstitutional government activities. His decision to selectively reveal classified information to the press has lead to strong government reforms designed to protect our privacy rights, yet he is considered a criminal, just as Daniel Ellsberg was a generation ago.
At a time when our current President openly lies to us, disparages the free press, calls it “fake news” and encourages citizens to distrust not only legitimate journalism but many trusted government institutions, this story about Publisher Katharine Graham, her Editor-in-Chief, Ben Bradley and the Washington Post is a timely tale of caution and inspiration for us all.