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The Post: Katharine Graham’s feminist manifesto fails as propaganda

Written By | Jan 8, 2018

LOS ANGELES, January 8, 2018: Steven Spielberg’s historical docudrama movie,  The Post,  is not so much about the government’s attempt to quash the First Amendment. It is more about the feminist manifesto of Washington Post publisher Katharine Meyer Graham (1917-2001) becoming empowered and coming into her own.

The Post

Katharine Graham

Katharine Graham became President of the Washington Post Company following the suicide of her husband, then publisher Phil Graham (July 18, 1915 – August 3, 1963).

Mrs. Graham had not been groomed to head the publication; however, the paper had been a part of Graham’s life since her father purchased the paper at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. At the Post, Graham was found working in the editorial and circulation departments.

The Post

The evolution of Katharine Graham is the key focal point of his film.  As Graham, Meryl Streep is marvelous at channeling Graham’s metamorphosis from daughter and wife to one of Washington’s power people.

Unfortunately, the minute director Steven Spielberg shifted to heavy-handed moralizing about the 1971 New York Times v. United States decision and the actions of the Nixon administration, The Post turns into a propaganda piece.


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The Pentagon Papers

From a Democrat administration to a Republican one, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The film desperately tries to paint parallels between this past Republican administration and the current one. But time and place have vastly changed.

From 1955 up to 1975, four administrations, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were unable to end Vietnam, which finally concluded under President Ford. News people of every stripe would cozy up to the Vietnam era administrations. Or they would harshly berate them.  It was dependent upon which side of the aisle they stood.

Most of the reviews and commentary about the film wrongly make Graham’s personal story a secondary focus. They are keying into the battle of the Nixon Administration to quash the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the name given to the top-secret report on United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967.

The Post defying the court

The film, thanks to power actors Hanks and Streep, ably spotlights the decision-making process between Katharine Graham and managing editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) on whether the Washington Post should defy court injunctions against publishing the document.

This decision to publish may very well land Bradlee and Graham in prison, and the story is their struggle—Graham’s struggle—between what is right and what is lawful.

The Post is more about Graham and her resolution to shine sunlight on the war many saw as unjust. It is also about the effort toward leading the news, as Post managing editor Ben Bradlee, who oversaw the breaking of the Watergate story with reports Woodward and Bernstein, so desperately sought.

Today, the free press is more of a wholesale flood toward crafting the news to fit a certain narrative as drawing back the curtains.

The free press in 1971

The movie brings up the question of whether the so-called “free press” is less or more freer since Katharine Graham’s decision to defy the government and publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971?

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell took to the pages of Investor’s Business Daily to blast the film on this count:

“If conservatives ever see this propaganda, what might surprise them is that the film’s lead characters chide each other for being too close to power. Graham would rush to spend a weekend at the ranch in Texas with ‘Lyndon’ Johnson, and then-Executive Editor Ben Bradlee schmoozed around for plenty of dinners and drinks with ‘Jack’ Kennedy. But Spielberg casts these characters as heroic by shunning their past sins of closeness to Democrats … by undermining Nixon — which only shows they were still doing exactly what the Democrats wanted.”

One glaring parallel is how over 50 plus years, not much has changed between the press and the government, despite the supposed “rallying cry” for change presented in the movie. Newspapers are still run by shareholders and corporations, and more beholden to those interests than they are to the interests of the people. Regardless of how much their PR departments, top anchors, and writers like to posit otherwise.

The ideological free press today

In our present day, we have had two sitting Presidents accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. In the case of President William Clinton, the press did all it could to make the women appear crazy and craven. They then painted President Clinton as beleaguered and put-upon. There was not #MeToo support for the women.

In the case of President Donald Trump, the press is striving hard to tie this current wave of #MeToo into a road to presidential impeachment. This despite the fact that impeachment has little to do with public opinion or press indignation.

According to the Heritage Guide for Impeachment:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. – ARTICLE II, SECTION 4

Which they further define as:

Because “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was a term of art used in English impeachments, a plausible reading supported by many scholars is that the grounds for impeachment can be not only the defined crimes of treason and bribery, but also other criminal or even noncriminal behavior amounting to a serious dereliction of duty.

While Clinton was impeached, for lying about his conduct while in office, Trump has not been charged, or found guilty, of allegations that are, in some cases, decades old. There are no allegations against President Trump for his actions while “on duty” as President of the United States.

Then we have former Secretary of State and losing presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and her email server woes. Clinton is back under the spotlight as she and the Clinton Foundation are coming under new scrutiny.

There is the disaster that is former FBI Director James Comey. There are the agency’s bias and glaring oversights and blatant disregard for the law or protocol.

Between the Obama administration and the current Trump administration, crimes while on duty by Clinton and/or Comey receive either grudging mention in the old media “legacy” press, or have been simply dismissed as witch hunts.

The Post Movie review

The Post is at worse, plodding, at best, artfully acted. The film did receive six nominations at last nights Golden Globes. However, The Post’s team of Tom Hanks (who executive produced and starred as Ben Bradlee) and director Spielberg went home empty-handed last night.

If the Hollywood Foreign Press Association fails to issue you an award, it is safe to say that your angle on the “free press” might have been lacking.

Despite Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s agenda, the movie fails on the count of painting the free press as a hero and protector of the First Amendment against a now combative Trump Administration. Where The Post succeeds and will be most memorable, is in its feminist bona fides: the emotionally riveting story of a woman who, ahead of her time, became a reluctant trailblazer.

Faced with real marginalization and dismissal, Katharine Graham overcame and now stands in history as America’s first female Fortune 500 CEO, a power broker who moved the Washington Post from a regional paper to worldwide prominence, and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for her memoir Personal History (1997).

Graham did this without the resources and redress that women have today, and I am sure without the whining.

Graham deserves this day in the sun that the movie The Post now affords her.

Jennifer Oliver OConnell

Jennifer Oliver OConnell offers witty, insightful, and direct opinion, analysis and musings on local and national politics and popular culture, with occasional detours into reinvention, food, and Yoga. Jennifer also teaches Yoga, and coaches clients on careers and reinvention. You can keep up with what's in Jennifer's orbit through her As the Girl Turns website.