Guy W. Farmer: ‘The Post’ and freedom of the press
I saw “The Post” last weekend and loved it because it reminded me of why I majored in journalism at the University of Washington in Seattle many years ago. It may sound corny today, but when I was a young journalist I wanted to make the world a better place by reporting the news fairly and accurately.
“The Post” is the story of the Washington Post’s fight with President Nixon and the Justice Department to publish the so-called Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War written during the administrations of presidents Kennedy and Johnson and leaked to the media during the Nixon administration. Although the written history concluded the U.S. couldn’t win the Vietnam War, government officials lied about body counts and predicted victory.
The movie focuses on the intense relationship between former Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, portrayed by Meryl Streep, and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). After much soul-searching, Ms. Graham eventually decided to publish the Pentagon Papers even though federal courts had ordered the New York Times and other newspapers to cease publication of classified documents. Her courageous decision reminded me of what the Duke of Wellington said in 1824 when a rival threatened to publish anecdotes about Wellington and his mistress. “Publish and be damned,” the Duke responded. Good for him!
So let’s fast-forward to 1971 and the case of New York Times v. United States, which was decided in favor of the Times (and Post) by a 6-3 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black reasoned as follows: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the government.” Amen!
That’s what I learned in Journalism 101 and it’s what I still believe more than 50 years later. My belief tracks with what one of my most distinguished journalism professors, Dr. Henry Ladd Smith, told us: “Journalism history is the story of man’s long struggle to communicate freely with his fellow men — to dig out and interpret news, and to offer intelligent comment in the marketplace of ideas.” And that’s what I try to do in this column every Sunday.
“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” our Founding Fathers declared in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Many presidents, including the current occupant of the White House, have complained about the First Amendment and tried to find ways around it in order to suppress news they don’t like; President Trump calls it “fake news.”
Another important principle I learned in Journalism 101 was the difference between straight news reporting and opinion journalism. News was published in the body of the paper and opinion was expressed on the opinion pages. These days, however, political agendas have infected newsrooms at great newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and many others, including a certain Reno daily.
Nevertheless, it’s dangerous to label “the media,” writ large, as “the enemy,” as President Trump so often does. “The media” are a huge, amorphous blob including not only mainstream media but also conservative media like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart and thousands of right-wing blogs. So, as “The Post” illustrates, the media may be obnoxious and/or wrong on occasion, but they aren’t “the enemy.” Long live the First Amendment.
Guy W. Farmer has worked in and around journalism for more than 50 years.