Sunday, January 28, 2018

Why societies need a free press

I really enjoyed the movie, The Post, which is based on the role that the Washington Post, and particularly the Publisher Katharine Graham, played in publishing the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon White House obtained a court order stopping the New York Times from doing so.

One intriguing aspect of the movie was it showed how much the world has changed since 1971, particularly with regard to technology and gender issues.

Newspapers and secret military documents were all hard copies. This made stealing, copying, and distributing the latter difficult. Articles were written on typewriters and newspapers were mechanically typeset. Photocopies were done page by page. The only phones were land lines and pay phones.
It is a long way from today's fast-paced and highly connected world of the internet, email, Wikileaks, and mobile phones.

The journalists and politicians were largely middle-aged white males. The movie shows what a pioneer Katharine Graham was and how hard it was for her to be taken seriously. She had the added obstacle that she had been belittled as a child and as a wife and so struggled to overcome her low self-confidence. Meryl Streep brilliantly shows this increasing confidence. The movie also shows how Graham became much admired by younger women.

The movie briefly mentions how Graham's husband died by suicide, leaving her to take over the newspaper. It does not discuss the associated mental health issues.

The main issue in the movie is resolved by a 6-3 ruling of the US Supreme Court, which allows further publication of the Pentagon papers. Justice Black wrote:
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. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.
Some of this is quoted in the movie. I also recommend the earlier movie, The Pentagon Papers, which focuses on the role of Daniel Ellsberg who was the source of the leak to the New York Times and the Post.

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