WASHINGTON – As a functional obsessive-compulsive, I’m never happier than at year’s end when I get to make lists. Herewith, my picks for the most important stories of 2017:
This year my list is short: “Fake News” – from which all cursings flow.
Not only has the president’s frequent “fake news” defense against any story he dislikes helped codify the idea that the media, especially CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, seek only to misinform, but this strategic deception has created a volunteer class of the arrogantly ignorant.
While such consistent dishonesty is annoying, my greater concern is for the future of the republic. The health of our democratic system of government relies at least somewhat upon a reasonably well-informed citizenry. When truth is relative, facts are fungible and the loudest voice wins the day, why, anyone really can become president.
How do journalists combat the rallying cry of the president himself? It’s impossible to argue with a fool or a liar. It is also difficult to convince people of one’s earnestness or commitment to standards if they fundamentally don’t care. In exasperation, one can be tempted to say such things as “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which happens to be the rather self-regarding slogan emblazoned on the Post’s masthead – and also happens to be true.
Art, it seems, has come to the rescue. Voila: “The Post.”
Among the many reasons to love Steven Spielberg’s new movie is that “The Post” may be the best rebuttal yet to the “fake news” mantra. It’s the story of the Post’s publication of parts of the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, which revealed that three presidents (John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) had lied persistently about the war and its human toll. The New York Times actually broke the story but was forced to cease publishing under a Justice Department injunction, which ultimately was reversed by the Supreme Court in 1971.
The injunction, nevertheless, provided the Post an opportunity to intercept the ball and run with it, publishing excerpts from its own, subsequently acquired copy of the documents. The movie traces the partnership of then-publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and former executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as they struggle with the decision to publish the papers.
Much of the focus is on Graham, who assumed control of the Post after her husband and co-owner, Phil Graham, committed suicide in August 1963 – hardly a tepid time to be in the news business. Although the paper has long been considered a Graham family enterprise, it was Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, who bought the paper in 1933 at a bankruptcy auction, eventually handing over the reins to Katharine’s husband.
Underlying the story of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers was an unsubtle, feminist subtext that will be familiar to women of a certain age. In 1963, “Kay” Graham was the only woman in the boardroom and one of only a few women when she glided through the newsroom. Thus, this wife-turned-publisher had to face not only business challenges for which she was ill-prepared, including a risky public offering, she also had to convince skeptical men that she was up to the job. Her fear, convincingly portrayed and palpably disabling at times, was an obstacle to overcome, which she did with the help of the fearless Bradlee, the tough warrior-editor who was Hollywood long before Hanks (or Jason Robards) played him.
Pivotal in Graham’s transformation was the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which was portrayed as torturous owing to two concurrent problems: One, she feared the banks would abandon her during the then-imminent public offering; and, two, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had commissioned the study that became known as the Pentagon Papers, was one of her dearest friends.
Both she and Bradlee, who had been close to Kennedy, were forced to choose between loyalty to friends – or the truth. Their respective struggles with this essential question was, for me, the essence of the film. At one point, Bradlee, apparently hurt that Kennedy had lied to him, reflects on the inherent tension between being friends with newsmakers and his responsibility to report news.
The message embedded therein is that facts and truth matter most of all. In newsrooms where real-life journalists pursue both, the very real struggles on view in “The Post” are replicated every day. There may be less drama, but the stakes are just as high. In a time of “fake news,” darkness settles when people can no longer tell the difference.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.