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.
«Radical critics of power are regularly ridiculed in the mass and social media.»
The Pentagon Papers revealed that according to the US government’s own list of priorities, the freedom of the South Vietnamese accounted for 10%, containing Chinese influence accounted for 20% and avoiding national humiliation a whopping 70%. On that basis the war continued, a war in which approximately two million people were killed. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69) continued to dispatch more troops despite having promised the exact opposite during his 1964 presidential campaign. Knowing full well that the war was a disaster, he expanded the slaughter to encompass Laos. President Nixon (1969-1974) next attacked Cambodia, killing a further 100,000 people. Moreover, the two presidents were behind the decision to release 66 million litres of Agent Orange, a toxic dioxin, over Indochina’s forests. According to Vietnamese figures, some 400,000 people were killed or injured by the chemicals and an even higher number of children were born with serious birth defects as a result. The human cost also included 58,200 dead Americans and an enormous number of badly traumatized servicemen, many of whom since committed suicide. All this to prevent the USA from losing face.
“A lesson from the Pentagon Papers and the Snowden leaks is quite simply that secrecy corrupts people, just like power does.”
The protests against the war waged by elected officials in Vietnam were widespread. The Washington Post spearheaded the efforts to expose Nixon, and then, just months before the 1972 presidential elections, came the Watergate scandal. The Republican president was accused of having personally misused the CIA, the FBI and his own administration to send five spies into the Democratic Party’s headquarters. He won an overwhelming re-election victory all the same. Bradlee and his colleagues only succeeded in bringing down Nixon–a highly secretive president who, much like Trump, tried to impose his personal rule over the US–in 1974. Criticizing power can have consequences, even if Nixon remains the only president to have been forced to resign so far. A press that eggs on the population with action-oriented war reporting and by mindlessly spreading fear of terrorism must share part of the responsibility for the misdeeds committed by governments.
Unfortunately, radical critics of power are regularly ridiculed in the mass and social media. Fake news and propaganda exist, of course, but a number of factions clearly find it opportune to use rhetorical tricks like guilt by association and generalization when attacking critics of power. They tarnish critics by grouping them together with extremists, or pounce upon individual factual errors in order to discredit everything else a critic may have said. Another oft-used tactic is to dismiss dissenting remarks as “factually untrue”, like the protector of the Norway’s mainstream media, faktisk.no, is fond of doing. Critics are branded idiots and ostracized from polite society with labels like “paranoid” (Assange), “anti-Semite” (Galtung) or peddlers of “fake news” and “extremist conspiracy theories” (Klassekampen/Modern Times).
«In The Newspaperman we witness The Washington Post’s decline from its Watergate pinnacle to again becoming a second-rate provincial newspaper.»
People who do not take the trouble of getting their own facts can only murmur approvingly. The tendency is to obsess over whether a statement is 100% correct rather than consider its relevance and importance. The debate becomes uncritical; a case of black or white that leaves little room for nuances. And if you lack arguments, you attack the messenger instead of the message, often in a moralizing fashion. Little wonder then that parts of the Norwegian news media would rather cover the sex lives of politicians than the international power struggles that really matter.
In The Newspaperman we witness The Washington Post’s decline from its Watergate pinnacle to again becoming the second-rate provincial newspaper it was in the years before Bradlee assumed the editorship in 1968. It was Bradlee who hired the African-American journalist Janet Cooke, who won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for what later turned out to be a fabricated story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Bradlee chose to counter the resulting loss of credibility by publishing a comprehensive analysis of the disaster that had hit the paper, to good effect. The whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg risked 115 years in prison, but eventually had his case dismissed. At the age of 86, he’s still fighting for today’s whistle-blowers and for a more transparent political system. As Ellsberg says, “A lesson from the Pentagon Papers and the Snowden leaks is quite simply that secrecy corrupts people, just like power does.” The lesson is to never stop criticising attempts at covering up abuses of power. Today this particularly applies to exploitation by governments of the never-ending war of our times: the so-called “War on Terror.”