The woman’s voice distracted me from viewing the coming attractions on the big screen in the darkened movie theater. She spoke while sitting down in the soft, red leather recliner, the last seat to be filled in the next-to-last row of the crowded film venue.
“I wonder what the average age of the audience is here?” she asked, while looking closely at the group eagerly awaiting the start of the feature. “At least sixty,” I replied. “You’ve been reading my mind.” We both enjoyed a good laugh as we settled in to see this long-anticipated and very timely film, knowing that we fit the three score demographic.
Steven Spielberg’s newly released film, The Post, did not disappoint this audience, folks long enough in the tooth to remember back to 1971 and the Nixon Administration, when the president used the power of the U.S. government in an attempt to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a history of the Vietnam War dating from the Truman era. A distinguished cast, led by Tom Hanks as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee, and Meryl Streep, portraying the Post’s Publisher, Katharine Graham, provide sufficient gravitas to tell this important part of our nation’s history.
So what lessons does this film provide those who weren’t even born in the time when Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman and a host of others were household words?
We can start with the word enemy.
Nixon referred to the press as “the enemy” and had a particular distaste for both the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of whom published excerpts of the Pentagon Papers. In addition, he even suggested that the FCC needed to create problems with the license of a Post-owned TV station. When you identify individuals or institutions as the enemy, as Nixon did with his infamous Enemies List, little good can come from that type of thinking.
Viewers learned, of course, that in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an injunction and held that the Post and the Times could publish the Pentagon Papers because the material was historical in nature and that a ban on publication would constitute prior restraint and thus be injurious to the purposes of the First Amendment.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black, who was appointed to the Court 34 years earlier by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 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. […] The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment.
— New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 717 (1971).
But while every administration has its differences with a free press and media establishment, the Trump Administration has taken the Nixon-era hostility to a new level, labeling our independent media as “scum” and as the “enemy of the people.” So it is fitting that the new film might also be providing some historical perspective and provoking thoughtful discussion on Capitol Hill.
In an interview on ABC’s This Week, outgoing Arizona Senator Jeff Flake weighed in on the Trump Administration’s use of language to both demonize and intimidate the media which serve the watchdog function articulated by Justice Black as fundamental in the First Amendment. The Post’s rival publication, the Washington Times, summarized Flake’s interview in this fashion:
You can talk about crowd size, and this is pretty innocuous if there’s a falsehood. But when you reflexively refer to the press as the ‘enemy of the people’ or ‘fake news,’ that has real damage,” Mr. Flake said. “It has real damage to our standing in the world. And I noted how bad it is for a president to take what was popularized by Joseph Stalin, the ‘enemy of the people,’ to refer to the press.
Flake is expected to offer an address on the floor of the U.S. Senate this week to further develop his views on Trump’s continuing attacks on the media and his use of Stalinist-type language that only serves to demonize the media as it fulfills its rightful function envisioned in our Bill of Rights.
In a way, knowing the hardcore and shrill nature of Trump’s 35% base, maybe we shouldn’t get too excited about the new film and its potential as a teaching vehicle for Americans to brush up on their knowledge of history and constitutional government. Never mind about the performance by three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who last year was characterized as “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood” by the president. Never mind that her name has been put forward 20 times for an Academy Award and garnered 31 Golden Globe nominations, winning eight of them. And never mind about the subject of the film, Katharine Graham, whose 2001 obituary in her newspaper called her an historic figure who “became one of the most influential and admired women of her generation.”
But who knows. Perhaps Trump fans will join other fellow citizens to embrace this film for its importance as a vehicle to teach our younger citizens about such concepts as the First Amendment, the importance of an independent media in a free society, what constitutes fair comment and criticism, prior restraint, and the all-important watchdog function that a free and independent media provide as a check and balance on an all-powerful government.
Yet in order to understand what this film might teach us, we must raise our voices in protest against the assault on freedom of the press and at the same time demand that the president stop his destructive behavior. If he does not, a new Congress, not the compromised one we now have, incapable of protecting us against his assaults, must start impeachment proceedings.
Yes, Trump seems to be guilty of violating the emoluments clause and enriching himself by using his office for material gain. He may also be guilty of money laundering, conspiracy with a foreign government in violation of the Logan Act, and obstruction of justice – among other high crimes and misdemeanors.
But of all of these sins against the law and the constitution, his assault on the First Amendment and those who serve in the field to provide us the very lifeblood that forms our system of governance is the most egregious wound of all to the Republic. This should be the first article of impeachment in a litany of crimes that Trump has inflicted on our Ship of State. There is nothing fake about what he has done to the First Amendment, and he should pay the ultimate price of dishonor and removal from office for this offense.
One thing I learned after coming home from the film was the eternal importance of these words: The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. These were among the last words written by Justice Black, for this was his last judicial opinion. He died about ten weeks after his classic defense of the First Amendment in the Pentagon Papers ruling.
For those of you who were not born in 1971 or weren’t of sufficient age to understand the importance of what happened during this time, you must go and see this film, as it will provide an important history and civics lesson.
At the conclusion of the film, I was struck by the number of people leaving the theater with the aid of walkers and canes who nevertheless made the effort to be reminded of what happened in this country when they were in their prime. They remembered that time when Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee served as a check on the power of the government directed by Richard Nixon & Co.
In the end, the last words of the woman seated next to me in the theater became more profound. As she got up to leave, she said in a quiet voice: “It looks like we are living this all over again.”
If young people show up in the next few weeks in theaters and absorb the lessons this movie provides, indeed if these same young people show up in the voting lines in November and be counted, we will not have to live that time all over again. There is nothing fake about the First Amendment; those who gather and prepare the news for us are not scum and enemies of the people. And there is certainly nothing fake about the rule of law.
The real enemies of the people are those in official places who would destroy the First Amendment. After all, it is a free and independent media that ensures our own freedoms. Yes, every picture and every motion picture tells a story and, better yet, this one teaches us as well.