Journalism in real life and the movies
I have a copy of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography “Personal History” (1997), which I had hurriedly bought to read before interviewing her daughter Elizabeth “Lally” Graham Weymouth in 2001. Weymouth was here at that time to interview then President Gloria Arroyo for Newsweek (also a publication of the Washington Post Company) as she had other heads of state.
Inquirer chair Marixi Prieto had arranged for the interview at a hotel lobby. It was short and quick, but it (and reading the book) gave me a glimpse of the storied life of Weymouth’s mother. Two months after the interview, Graham died at the age of 84.
So watching “The Post” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep (as Graham) and Tom Hanks (as Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) was not at all like knowing about the story for the first time, also because — in an eerie sort of way — something similar had played out in the Philippines before and is again playing out here and now. Although in different magnitudes at different times and circumstances.
Allison Brie played Lally Graham Weymouth who, in the movie, gave her mother a what-to-do-and-not-do list when she entered, for the first time, the lion’s den made up of corporate men.
“The Post” is about Washington Post’s 1971 exposé on the highly classified Pentagon Papers that would throw light on the United States’ involvement and loss in the Vietnam War that was being kept secret while hundreds of thousands of young Americans continued to die in the battlefield. Then President Richard Nixon, like his predecessors, had secrets to keep.
Graham, newly widowed and who took over the helm of the Washington Post, had to contend with her friendship with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the Post’s editors and reporters, the company’s overbearing stockholders, as well as a possible lawsuit that could spell the end of the company if the newspaper spilled what was in the Pentagon Papers. The movie draws much from Chapters 21 and 22 of Graham’s 26-chapter autobiography (with photos). The choice was hard but Graham had to make it. The newspaper triumphed, with the Supreme Court upholding the correctness of the paper’s decision to publish.
In her book, Graham quotes a letter from Bradlee: “I’m not sure I could handle another one of these tomorrow, but it is so great to know that this whole newspaper will handle the next one with courage and commitment and style.”
Graham follows with: “Indeed, publishing the Pentagon Papers made future decisions easier, even possible. Most of all it prepared us — and I suspect, unfortunately, Nixon as well — for Watergate.”
Yes, daring, defiant journalism that exposes the truth no matter who is in power has its own redemptive power.
A number of journalism-related movies based on real events have gotten their share of Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences which is going 90 this year, as well as awards from other bodies. March 4 is the big day and already, “The Post,” Streep in particular (for the nth time in her life), are in the running. In 2016, “Spotlight” which was about Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team that investigated sex abuses in the Church, ran away with the Best Picture award.
The 1976 “All the President’s Men” (starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, respectively, and Jason Robards as editor Bradlee) which was on the Watergate scandal during the Nixon presidency had its share of awards and nominations from award-giving bodies. The 2017 movie “The Post” is like a prequel to the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men,” the former ending with a hint of the exposé that was to explode next — the Watergate break-in.
The riveting drama in these movies that I see as a journalist consists of the characters, the hidden sources, the legwork, the digging up, the locking horns with publishers and editors, and, of course, the consequences. In real life it is heart-pounding, exhausting, frightening, exhilarating. As one shapes and writes the story in solitude, the characters, living and dead, come to life — to haunt, torment, cast doubt, and also assure. The truth one knows has a way of sneaking back in.
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