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Archive for January, 2018

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.”

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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.

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