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Journalists think journalism is the main point of “The Post.” It seemed kind of secondary to me when I saw the movie earlier this week.

The movie is about events surrounding the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a secret, Pentagon-compiled history of the conflict in Vietnam – which predated the U.S. troop presence there, with U.S. involvement stemming from decisions made during the Truman administration. That history catalogued decades of lies that the U.S. government told the public about what it was doing in Vietnam and how successful those efforts were.

The New York Times obtained that history and found itself in the legal crosshairs of the Nixon administration after it began publishing stories detailing the lies.

The movie, though, is about what key figures at the Washington Post did after that.

Some, including journalists at the Times, complain that the movie should have focused on the Times and how it got the papers. But the movie doesn’t focus on the journalism surrounding the Pentagon Papers. There would be good drama to be found there, but that’s not what this story is.

The primary story “The Post” tells is that of Katharine Graham, her struggle to grow into the role of publisher and the decisions she had to make that could have destroyed her and, perhaps most significantly in her mind, her children’s inheritance.

The movie takes some license with the reality of Graham, portraying her as a much more fragile person than she was, and also with the reality of how extensive the pushback was against publishing the story, so the situation portrayed is largely accurate, but the drama is ramped up markedly — as often happens with movies.

If this is a movie primarily about journalism, then why is there so little actual journalism portrayed? The initial act that led to the Pentagon Papers coming into the Times’ possession is portrayed as that of a whistleblower, with no involvement of any journalist — the movie viewer doesn’t even know, at that point, where the documents land. Later, the Post reporter Ben Bagdikian is shown tracking down the whistleblower, but there is less of him in the movie than Graham as either the lone woman in a room full of male bankers and lawyers or the lone businesswoman in a room full of housewives or secretaries.

Time after time, there are scenes contrasting Graham’s roles – the socialite, publisher’s wife role into which she was raised, and the business owner/publisher role into which she was thrust. The scenes illustrate the man’s world of 1971, where a woman making important decisions was treated by men like, to borrow a phrase of Graham’s from one scene, the sight of a dog walking upright.

And other than the scene of the socialite housewives, in all the other scenes the woman all are young. They are the next generation. They are the ones following, looking to the example of Graham’s generation of women.

To be sure, this is a movie partly about journalism as a necessary means of holding government accountable – thus director Steven Spielberg’s emphasis on a key part of the Supreme Court decision: “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.”

But if this is not a movie primarily about Graham, why so much emphasis on scenes where Graham is an object of obvious veneration by young women? This happens in crowds of women twice, and both times the young women part for her like the Red Sea for Moses, all of the young women gazing upon her in open admiration, and it happens once with a young woman working for the U.S. attorney general. The movie hammers the point, as Spielberg movies tend to do with their points, that Graham was a trailblazer for women.

And as if to further drive home the point for all of the men who still think it’s a story about journalism, Spielberg has editor Ben Bradlee’s wife explain to Bradlee why Graham had the most to lose and showed the greatest bravery. Bradlee does not argue with her.

So, for the question, why does the movie focus on the Post rather than the Times? Precisely because Graham found herself in a crucible like no one else did (or at least, since in reality it all happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to agonize over the decision, Graham’s situation posed for the movie makers an irresistible potential for a crucible). That her crucible was a key moment in journalistic history would be beside the point if there were not powerful people who today believe the government should control what the media can publish.

This is a movie about women, and more than anything else this is a movie made for this new “Year of the Woman.”

———-

NOTE: One thing I’ve not read about “The Post,” anywhere: If the Post had only 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, as stated in the movie, there’s no way it would fill two giant boxes, not unless paper in 1971 was many times thicker than it is now. Pick up a ream (500 pages) of paper. You are talking 8 of those. That’s less than one box.

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I am not at all sure what to think of the announcement that McClatchy is changing its leadership structure and appointing regional editors, including one over its properties in North and South Carolina, with the goal of speeding newsroom innovation.

Mainly that’s because of the emphasis in the Raleigh News & Observer story on one particular quote in the company’s announcement:

“Our current system, with each newsroom operating separately from the others, discourages cooperation in favor of competition and duplication,” the company said in announcing the changes. “By working together, we will marshal all the resources and talents and expertise from each region, and across the company, to produce local journalism that is ever more essential to the communities we serve.”

Any veteran of the former Media General newspapers, among some others, would recognize that description of working together to marshal regional resources and talent. Such a thing used to be called synergy. It’s hardly a new concept, and the word hasn’t been in favor for at least 10 years. Even if that’s what was being described, McClatchy officials doubtless would dismiss the suggestion that it’s what was intended because it wouldn’t sit well with investors to revive a term that no one uses anymore.

Time will tell what McClatchy’s intent actually is, but I am hard-pressed to reconcile the talk of “competition and duplication” among its N.C. and S.C. properties with the company’s footprint. There aren’t that many properties, they don’t have that much overlap, and McClatchy already combined its page design and state capital reporting operations, or at least announced it had. Are the newsrooms still, to this day, so resistant to the idea of working together that management had to be shoved aside and new blood brought in? Or is the emphasis on that one paragraph misplaced — bad reporting? Or is it company misdirection?

It was just a few months ago that Poynter reported on McClatchy’s “reinvention teams,” which the company said at the time were “picking up the pace” of innovation.

But that’s what the new regional editors are supposed to do.

It’s hard to know where things are really going. I look forward to seeing what happens.

Poor Mrs. Jarvis will be sweating it out in these final hours before Christmas. I can imagine the questions tumbling through her head that will keep her awake.

Do elves get angry?

If so, how angry?

Are elves snitches?

How protective of his elves is Santa Claus?

Does Santa hold grudges?

Could an otherwise well behaved, nice teacher wind up on the naughty list because of a single day’s unfortunate interactions with an elf?

If you read the letters to Santa that the News-Topic published in Thursday’s paper, you may have noticed a thread through a number of the letters that came from children in a Gamewell Elementary School classroom. Apparently there was a mishap with an Elf on the Shelf who was helping the teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, watch over the children. The details weren’t clear, but it seems that Mrs. Jarvis went to get a map, and the elf was knocked to the floor — the first of at least two elf-involved incidents that day.

Some of the children seemed concerned that Santa would blame Mrs. Jarvis and eke out some form of punishment — perhaps no presents, or even coal in her stocking.

One girl wrote (and this is the actual pre-school spelling), “Mrs Jarvis atditl nock the elf on the shelf ples dot be mad at her She wus geted a big map owt but the elf wus on the map She is so so so sorry it wus a crasy day but we mae it work the elf she sorry.”

One even took collective responsibility for the whole class to protect Mrs. Jarvis: “I am so sorry that weve been droping your elf.”

But some of the children, while seeming to ask Santa for understanding, didn’t seem to have their heart in it, plunging straight from saying it was an accident into what was really on their minds.

“Mrs. Jarvis is Sorry for nocking your elf down and I want a iphone8 for Christmas and can I pretty please have it. I think I can have it. Here is how I’ve been good I’ve helped people I’ve sometimes been good and at home I’ve helped my sister and feed the cats,” one boy wrote.

Another wrote, “Mrs. Jarvis did not mean to make the elf fall of the shelf. She said she is really sorry and this is what I want a PS4 for chrismas I help my brother clean the house.”

But one girl seemed to relish playing informant. She didn’t even ask Santa for anything, she just dished on the elf’s mistreatment: “It was Mrs. Jarvis who kept on droping our elf on the shelf. Before lunch Mrs. Jarvis hung our elf with a wooden cloths pin. When we was at lunch me and Jaylyn had a prediction that the elf would be getting ready crawl out the door or already be out of the room.”

Another girl added the detail that Mrs. Jarvis tried at one point to use two clothes pins to hold the elf “so he would not go away and Leave a note.”

Elf, held against his will, pinned so he can’t escape. Elf-napping!

If, in fact, elves get mad and Santa holds grudges, whether that happens in this case probably hangs on such details of the elf’s treatment. It would not be because Mrs. Jarvis “axidintly droped the Elf” in the first place, it would be because she double-pinned him, or (as a couple of others wrote) after the first drop she pinned him up by his hat alone, the hat being insufficiently attached to his head to bear his weight, so that during lunch break the elf tumbled again to the floor.

The indignity.

Do elves feel pride? Humiliation?

Mrs. Jarvis, as she lies in bed tonight listening for sleigh bells and reindeer hooves on the roof, surely will wonder.

Consequences


I regret to inform all my friends in news, and family so inclined, that whatever soul I had left is gone. Starting Jan. 1 I will be the publisher of the Lenoir News-Topic.

At a company announcement, an editor friend said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

New scenery needed


My blog is named “Newsroom With a View,” and the view has been what I saw from the Hanover, Virginia, newsroom of Media General’s central editing center at the time I worked there. Since then, obviously my physical view has changed — my current office has no windows, but if it did they would not look out on anything as nice. However the country I am in now is much nicer, and my views on the news landscape have changed. So I am in search of new imagery for my blog background. I still have a newsroom, and I still have a view, but as anyone who has been reading me can tell, all of that is different now.

When we die, our families remember our smiles and laughter, tears and tantrums, the animals we cuddled and the games we enjoyed. Our mothers remember what we smelled like. Our fathers remember how helpless we made them feel. Friends and relatives alike linger on our photos, mentally caressing the memories.

An autopsy report is the opposite. It is striking for its clinical distance, the dispassion that renders a human being into a collection of anatomical descriptions. It carries and conveys no memory or warmth, just the immediate nature of the cold, decaying tissue on the table in front of the medical examiner, who tries to thoroughly document what was and was not wrong with the body before it died, and especially what precisely may have killed it.

“The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished, adult Caucasian woman who appears consistent with the stated age.”

Her stated age was 18. She died in Lenoir. In family photos she has long, straight, light-brown hair and a radiant smile, whether standing alone modeling a dress or cuddling with a younger brother.

She arrived at the medical examiner’s office at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem in a body bag, her hair 16 inches long. She wore black shorts, a black shirt, a black bra, and an ankle band with her name on it. “Personal effects accompanying the body include a hair tie and flip-flops,” the autopsy report said.

In its way, the report describes a young woman who by all appearances had many years ahead – a young woman who matched the one her family and friends could see in their treasured photos. The clinical version of that, though, is the absence of abnormality, the cataloguing of healthy tissue, using the same terms over and over.

“The ears are not unusual. The lips and gums are pale and atraumatic. The teeth are natural and in fair condition. … well-developed … without injuries … unremarkable … symmetrical … intact … free of abnormality … normal … intact … intact … smooth … usual … unremarkable … unremarkable … intact … free … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … unobstructed … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … unremarkable … normal … without focal abnormality … not unusual.”

The medical examiner noted a spot of bleeding under her scalp near the base of the skull – perhaps from where she fell backward and hit her head as she died? The report doesn’t offer the examiner’s opinion.

She had only two other injuries, extremely minor, that could have come from everyday activity: a very small bruise over her right shin, and a slightly larger, lighter, yellowish bruise over her left shin.

She had a very small amount (less than 5 percent) of abnormal or scar tissue in her heart, which may or may not have pointed to future heart disease many years ahead.

The answer to what killed her came not from anything on the table in front of the medical examiner that September day in Winston-Salem, but from blood drawn from an artery in the young woman’s thigh the summer day she was found dead.

She had taken cocaine apparently mixed with a few other things, but the fatal mix was cocaine and cyclopropylfentanyl – a chemical cousin to a powerful opiate, fentanyl, that has been implicated in a rapidly escalating number of drug overdoses and deaths nationwide.

There probably wasn’t much cyclopropylfentanyl at all. In fact, there was nearly 10,000 times more cocaine in her blood, and there was less than half a gram of cocaine. If all the cyclopropylfentanyl in her system were spread as powder on your living room table, you wouldn’t notice it among the dust — but it could still kill you.

That’s all it takes to end a life. One day perhaps your life.

Your laughter, your tears, your rages, hugs, joys all pass into memory, while you and that poison in your blood lie inert, waiting to be coldly examined by a stranger.


I never wanted the cat. I hadn’t even wanted the first one, who was born to a semi-stray under our back porch in Richmond, Virginia. I had no control over that or my wife crawling under the porch and falling in love with the runt of the litter.

But the second one more or less was my fault. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t want it, but I didn’t keep my mouth shut, so it was my fault.

Two or three months after the semi-stray’s litter under our porch, in the early morning dark as I took a bag of garbage out to the bin in the alley I heard a kitten-ish peeping. I went back in the house, got a flashlight and went hunting for the source of the sound. Eventually, the sound led me to the concrete landing of the apartment building next door. Under that landing was a small gap, and in that gap two tiny eyes glowed in the flashlight beam.

I went back in the house. I figured the mother cat would come and find the kitten. Before I left for work, though, I told my wife what I heard and found.

About two hours later, my wife called me at the office. That little, tiny kitten was climbing the outside stairs of the apartment building outside her study. The stairs had a large gap between each stair, and she worried it would get very high up, then fall through a gap to the concrete pad. I told her to relax, it will be fine, it’s so tiny it can’t possibly climb very far. I hung up.

I turned to a co-worker and said, “There will be two cats in my house when I get home from work.”

I was right.

The first cat was still a kitten but, as quickly as kittens grow, loomed like a giant over the second, who hunched his back to make himself as big as possible and jumped sideways at the first cat, who stared at the odd sight.

We soon learned that wherever the new kitten had come from, he was being paper-trained. We found out because the room where we kept him had bags of old magazines and paperback books, and one day I found him dumping on top of one stack. I remember holding him upside down, poop trailing over his belly, as I tried to carry him someplace where he would not leave a holy mess. A short while later I explored and found his previous visits to our library stacks.

With all other paper removed from that room except a large square of newspaper around the litter box, he chose to poop and pee on the newspaper, not in the box.

But it occurred to me: If he wants to pee on paper, try putting a square of newspaper inside the litter box. It worked! Over time, I put narrower and narrower pieces of paper in, until one day he was litter-trained. Voila! I’m a genius!

He was an adventurous boy, but odd. He got in my lap exactly one time, for just a few minutes. Then he jumped down, never to return again. He didn’t resist being picked up, but he stiffened. It reminded me of stories about babies born to women addicted to crack, “crack babies” was the term. I called him a “crack kitten.”

We did not let the cats roam, but in Richmond we had a second-floor porch, and we put a kitty door in the screen door to it, so the cats had, except in very cold weather, free access to an outdoor area pretty much 24 hours a day. Then one night we couldn’t find him. I went around the house calling for him, then went out on the second floor porch, wondering if he was under a chair in the dark. I called his name. From the distance, on the ground below, he meowed. I ran inside, grabbed a flashlight and ran out the kitchen door. I called him, he meowed, and the flashlight fell on him, his eyes shining back.

Instinctively I ran toward him — and instinctively he bolted through a hole in the fence.

For the next three days we searched around, and I walked the alley at night, calling his name. Research told me that indoor cats that get out tend not to wander very far because they are afraid, but he seemed to be too afraid to call out. One evening he did, and I followed his sound. I called him, he meowed. I advanced. I called him, he meowed, I advanced. I was getting close — and then a car with an extremely loud muffler roared down the alley. He didn’t answer me anymore.

The next night, I waited until after 11 p.m., when it was quieter out, and went out and called his name. He meowed from what sounded like the neighbor’s yard. I went out the front door and around to the neighbor’s side gate. Luckily, it didn’t have a lock on it. I went in and sat on the back steps and called the cat. After I called a few times, he emerged from the darkness and rubbed up against me. I petted him and petted him and called his name. Then I gently scooped him up, cradled him and started the walk back home. As we neared our front porch, a loud car came rumbling down the street, and the cat tensed in my arms, so I locked my arms down on him and hurried to the front door. The car passed, the cat relaxed, I opened the door, and I dropped him gently to the floor.

“Percy’s home!” I called out as I wept.

In Lenoir, we have no outdoor porch for cats to lounge on and stare hungrily at birds, but we have plenty of windows. Lots of big, tall windows, so lots of sun, morning, noon and late afternoon. And a big staircase, with high ledges looking down the stairs to the first floor. It’s a good house for a cat.

But cats don’t stay kittens. Age catches up. During the past couple of years, he developed an auto-immune disorder, and then diabetes, and then a little more than a week ago something like a severe sinus infection. He stopped eating. The vet also found lesions inside his mouth. Because of the diabetes, he already had been losing weight, but without eating his weight plummeted. On Thursday we decided we had to put him down.

For years I have lamented the burdens of these cats. I never wanted him in the first place. When the hell will I stop crying?