The Newspaperman explores the struggle for free press and truth in journalism during Ben Bradlee’s time as head of The Washington Post.
The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee
USA, 2017 90 minutes
The documentary film The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee (HBO Nordic) tells the story of The Washington Post’s eponymous chief editor (1968-1991), its owner Katharine Graham and their struggle for a free press. Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which premieres this month, focuses on the same protagonists, played on screen by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
Truth Is Freedom
While Spielberg’s film concentrates on the release of the Pentagon Papers (the Vietnam War), the more comprehensive documentary also covers the Watergate scandal that brought down president Nixon. Both films employ original 1970s telephone recordings of Nixon, made public after Watergate, where the president lambasts the Washington Post and its editor, while the White House spokesman accuses the same paper of “shoddy journalism”–“fake news.” In a highly unusual move, the president took legal steps to stop The New York Times, which was the first to publish the papers, from releasing the more than 7,000 stolen documents detailing the government’s Vietnam secrets, ostensibly “in the interest of national security.” Bradlee and Graham still decided to go ahead, even at the risk of ending up in jail on charges of contempt of court. The Supreme Court later acquitted the paper, citing the US Constitution’s First Amendment (on the freedom of speech) in its ruling.
Today president Trump’s tirades against the press and president Obama’s dogged hunt for whistle-blowers constitute clear parallels to the aforementioned cases. But what is really at stake here? What are the consequences of such revelations? As Bradlee once said, “The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free.” Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (1961-68) ordered a study into America’s involvement in Vietnam. The subsequent report documented that the administration at an early stage realized that the war was unwinnable and that the communists on the other side of the world couldn’t be defeated. To Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the report for McNamara, the lies became unbearable; the truth had to be revealed somehow. The former Vietnam soldier first brought up his concerns internally, like Edward Snowden would do some 50 years later, but his efforts elicited no response. He therefore went to the press.