Saturday, May 5, 2018

Journalism Nostalgia

“The Post,” directed by Stephen Spielberg, 2017

Ah, the good old days, when bourgeois journalism actually had some bite.  Put the most popular mainstream liberal director together with the vanilla skills of the two top actors in Hollywood, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks - and what do you have?  “The Post” about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.  This story of the past will mostly resonate with freshman journalism students and Democratic Party loyalists.  What is left unsaid is that present journalism is a disaster, rightist and liberal alike.

Instead of being owned by a tony upper-class family, the Grahams, the Washington Post is now owned by Jeff Bezos, a crass internet multi-billionaire.  And the New York Times?  No longer the respected ruler of U.S. journalism.  Instead it is a paper waiting for someone to do a film on the NYT promotion of another criminal war, the Iraq war.  With the modern Post not far behind.
Government AG Tries to Censor NY Times

How the mighty have fallen.  The best parts of the film are the brief bits with Daniel Ellsberg and about Vietnam.  Through Ben Bradlee, the Post editor and Ellsberg, the whistle-blower, it reminds the historically clueless that the government lies, commits bloody crimes and then sends working-class kids off to war. Nothing has changed except people’s intentional memories.  War in the U.S. is like Groundhog Day.  Each war is always the first.

The film actually puts Vietnam in the background so that we can see heroic journalism in action and a vacillating rich woman, Katharine Graham, become a real leader.   The war is just their stage.  The Supreme Court, the top of our corrupt two-tier legal system, actually makes a right decision by allowing publication. Today’s Supreme Court?  Not so much.

The film centers on Bradlee’s push to publish the Pentagon papers at the Post.  The papers were an internal academic exercise by the military and government looking into the war that was supposed to be secret.  The papers exposed the deceptions and failures of  the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations in this long-running disaster.

The rush to publish seems to happen just a few days before a federal hearing on the NYT excerpts of the same Pentagon papers.  The NYT actually beat the Post to publication, but this seems to be peripheral in this story, which sidelines the NYT!   The rush also seems to happen towards the end of a 1 week liability period after an initial public offering of Washington Post stock.  The 4 hour mad dash to edit and publish seems odd in this context.  Even the scenes of writers and editors attempting to piece together the documents page by page seem bogus.  It assumes Ellsberg didn’t copy them in order or organize them.  Is the rush some attempt to help the NYT in their lawsuit? Exempt others from scooping the Post?  Or just an example of psychological agitation?  The Post was attempting to end their  ‘local’ status by trying to beat the Times.  A few days of delay does not seem fatal. 

The square-head lawyers hired by the Post to defend them against Nixon mostly oppose the Post and side with the government.  The business people in the IPO oppose Graham, Bradlee and the reporters on publication. The key line in the Nixonian court injunction against the NYT is that ‘the paper and its agents’ shall not publish.  The lawyers insist that Ellsberg is an ‘agent’ but he is not, he is a source. Nor is the Post an ‘agent.’  So their legal arguments for Nixon seem to make no sense either.  Normally you would fire lawyers that are not defending you.

The Real Bradlee and Graham
Of most interest are the personal relationships of Graham and Bradlee with people in the government.  Graham was a big friend of William McNamara, one of the leading architects of the war.  He shows up in the film several times as a personable liar. She also hobnobbed with Lyndon Johnson, the war president.  Bradlee was a personal friend of John Kennedy, another architect of the American war in Vietnam.  They regret that the people they liked were involved in this grave crime.  This shows the rarefied atmosphere at the top of bourgeois journalism, EVEN in those days.  Now the situation is even more pronounced, as leading journalists are many times in the same class as those they cover, and thus sympathetic to them and their aims. A recent study indicated that the majority of reporters at the NYT and the Wall Street Journal are from Harvard or Yale.  Many more are from other Ivy League schools.  These are no longer street-wise reality reporters.

While the NYT recently published Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, they have since then joined in the corporate chorus of hatred for Snowden and Wikileaks.  Perhaps if Snowden had given them secret academic papers on the failed wars in the Middle East, would they have published?  Certainly, Chelsea Manning didn’t get their nod.

The film is worth watching, if only for its nostalgia in a past that is almost gone.

Other reviews on journalism issues below:  Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent,” Mander’s “4 Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism,” “Empire of Illusion,” “Turning Off NPR,” “The Cultural Apparatus of Monopoly Capital,” and many books on Vietnam. Use blog search box, upper left.

Riverview Theater

Red Frog

May 5, 2018

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