Why The New York Times is wrong about 'The Post'

The story of “The Post,” which hit theaters on Friday, is as relevant today as it was in 1971. Not just because of public officials who don’t want people to know the truth, but also because of news organizations that shy away from telling the truth: the Harvey Weinstein exposé started as an investigation at NBC News and ended up being published by The New Yorker.

What is not right is how several people at The New York Times are upset for what they call an inaccurate depiction of history.

“The Times alone won the Pulitzer Prize, for the real story,” and should be the centerpiece of any movie about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, said retired Times reporter Fox Butterfield who was part of the unit that first broke the story. “I have no interest in seeing it,” he proclaimed, “I was trained as a historian, and this is terrible history.” Current Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet is also boycotting the film and chimed that “drama and commerce trumps history in Hollywood.” Former Vice Chairman of the Times, James C. Goodale went even further: “To create the impression that The Washington Post was the key driver responsible for the publication of the Pentagon Papers or the [Supreme Court] case is — well, it's Hollywood: good drama but bad history."

Is “The Post” really falsifying history?

What the people at The Times don’t seem to understand is that this film is not about the Pentagon Papers but about Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, a woman who took over the struggling and cash-starved local paper after the suicide of her husband and turned it into a mainstream publication. That is perhaps the reason that the name of the film was changed from “The Papers” to “The Post” (I would have changed it to “Katharine Graham”).

As Tom Hanks, who played one of the two lead characters, said in response to a question from The Times, “Well, they didn’t have Katharine Graham, in all honesty. If they had a Katharine Graham we’d be calling it ‘The New York Times.’”

The Times was the first to break the Pentagon Papers story revealing that the Johnson Administration systematically lied to the public by not disclosing the expansion of the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. That fact is established early on in the film. Nowhere do the producers make the claim that The Washington Post, which published the remaining bits of the Pentagon Papers after The Times was stopped due to a court order, alone deserves all the credit.

A writer for “The Post” described the film as an “unromantic love story” between Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the cocky Post editor. “I read Graham's memoir, “Personal History”, and I absolutely fell in love with her," Liz Hannah recounted. Instead of writing a biographical film, however, Hannah narrowed the scope to just the publication of Pentagon Papers, an event she saw as a pivotal moment in Graham's life and career.

Graham was an avid socialite and had intense feelings of self-doubt before she was thrust into the job. From there on, as one observer noted, “Graham assert[s] her authority—as she moves from a timid to a towering figure— who fights for both her voice and the freedom of the press.” At the risk of jeopardizing the Post’s initial stock offering and losing television licenses together worth more than $130 million, Graham decided to act against the law that had successfully stopped The Times, so her paper's legal jeopardy was far greater than what The Times had initially faced.

Another reason that Graham’s story rightly deserves a Hollywood movie is that she appointed Bradlee as the editor of the paper, a move which surprised many. Bradlee improved the quality and reputation of the Post and laid the groundwork for the paper to break the most significant story in the history of American journalism, the Watergate scandal.

Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham with reporters Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, editor Howard Simons discuss the Wate
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham with reporters Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, editor Howard Simons discuss the Watergate story in Post managing editor Benjamin C. Bradlee in Bradlee’s office at the Washington in 1973

Here’s what The Times does not seem to get

I drew the ire of many people from Pakistan when I said on live television in 2015 that the Showtime series “Homeland” was very fair with their depiction of Pakistan. I was reacting to a Pakistani official furious over the portrayal. “Islamabad [capital of Pakistan] is a quiet, picturesque city with beautiful mountains and lush greenery,” the official said. “In ‘Homeland,’ it’s portrayed as a grimy hellhole and war zone where shootouts and bombs go off with dead bodies scattered around. Nothing is further from the truth.”

The Pakistani official and The Times are essentially missing the same idea. “Homeland” is about the world of CIA agents and the complexities of their work. The series - produced with guidance from real CIA analysts who spend days with the cast to help them project an accurate image - did an excellent job translating the CIA’s troubled relationship with Pakistan’s ISI through the eyes of American spies who have worked in that country. A CIA agent on a top secret mission in one of the most turbulent places in the world has no time to explore lush gardens (had it been a program about Islamabad city then it would have made sense to cover its lush public parks). The fairness of the show was evident in one of the early episodes of the season, with the shock of the protagonist Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who exclaimed, “how is that possible,” at the CIA not being able to trace phone calls of Pakistani spies because Pakistan had superior technology than America.

“The Post” is about Graham and how she found herself through the difficult period of the Pentagon Papers story. It is not about who published the story first and it is not about who should get credit for breaking the story. As Josh Singer, another writer, said in an interview, the three main themes of the film are “journalism, feminism and moral leadership” and that the movie puts a business focus on the company.

This is not to say that the film did not have its flaws; it ignores the fact that Katharine Graham was in her job for eight years before she had to deal with the Pentagon Papers story and so had a much stronger grip on the company affairs than shown. That was one of the few minor things wrong with the film, but the accusations of The Times staff is not one of them.

One day the New York Times will get their own movie but “The Post” is not it.

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