The Post, the new Steven Spielberg film out at midnight, has been sold as a parable for our own dark political times. Tracing The Washington Post’s 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the movie portrays heroic media figures fighting to get the truth out in the face of a corrupt White House’s best efforts. The call of democratic duty to tell this story in 2017 was so great that Hollywood nobles Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks depicted legendary Post figures, Publisher Katharine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, respectively.
Journalists, who gush over important stories about themselves, have painted The Post as an even more evocative love letter to journalism than 2015's Spotlight. But there’s been a faint rumbling in the background of the excitement, the type of annoying sound that theatergoers are warned against making lest they ruin the film for everyone else. It’s the sound of recipients of this very love letter harrumphing that The Post is—gasp!—inaccurate.
You may have noticed this in the to-be-sure asides squeezed into many mostly positive reviews. Critics waved their smarmy finger: It was in fact The New York Times that first published the Pentagon Papers! The Post wrote a mere day-two story! Former staffers of the Gray Lady, the guardian of the disinterested school of American journalism, have even complained about the lack of credit Hollywood is giving them in deliciously ironic interviews.
Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet similarly tut-tutted the film in an email to Poynter, a nonprofit that extolls the sort of journalistic virtues The Post would seem to highlight, published on Thursday:
I don’t think I will see it, despite entreaties from the film makers...The most courageous decision was made by Arthur Sulzberger (the current Times publisher’s late father, known as Punch) — to publish first and to bet his entire company. It was all he had. Graham deserves credit for much. But Arthur deserves more than the walk-on he gets. And it pains me that a generation won’t ever know the story of a publisher who bet his entire company on the most important journalism decision of an era.
First of all, you only have to watch the trailer to know that The Post acknowledges very openly that the Times broke the story. It’s not a secret the film is keeping. But more broadly, it’s worth pondering to what extent a film starring a pair of white Boomers will inform a generation about something that happened in 1971. (For what it’s worth, Spotlight was just the 74th highest-grossing film in 2015, per BoxOfficeMojo).
There are also other ways to tell the story, like, say, in a widely circulated national newspaper. The Times itself published a detailed piece Wednesday, pegged to the release of The Post, laying out the history of the Pentagon Papers. It makes at least a half-dozen references to how the Times initially had the scoop. The paper’s review, meanwhile, includes a fat paragraph on “the real story,” adding later, “shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism.” Is that bitterness I detect?
Hanks and Streep have even fielded questions—from journalists—about the supposed snub in their relentlessly pro-media media tour for the pro-media film. “Well, [The Times] didn’t have Katharine Graham, in all honesty,” Hanks told The Washington Post. Imagine that: The story chosen by Spielberg, a famous moviemaker, made for a better movie.
It’s similar to how leaving out Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s real-life screw-ups and ethical compromises while covering Watergate made All the President’s Men a better movie. And that’s not even to mention the film adaptation’s omission that Nixon was brought down by subpoena-wielding authorities as much as anything done by the press.
Has that affected public understanding of what actually happened during Watergate? Maybe. Would a similar myth emanating from The Post, a film with a strong female protagonist, be so bad at a time when media needs heroes? I’ll take the tradeoff. Only a tribe as insufferable as journalists would poke holes in artwork intended to be-knight them.
I haven’t seen The Post yet. (I was sent a screener of the movie, but I’m millennial scum and don’t have a DVD player on which to watch it. My editors saw it and pronounced it “fine.”) So I’ll see you in the theaters eating overpriced popcorn and warning my fellow journalists: Enjoy the film, or don’t, but at least don’t ruin it for the rest of us.