When journalists watch films such as “The Post” or “Spotlight,” they see how dedicated reporters, editors, copyeditors and an entire newspaper staff can take a kernel of truth and transform it into a paradigm-shifting story. In 2015's “Spotlight,” a team of four investigative journalists learns to work with a new editor in the light of scandal within the religious community. In “The Post,” opening this weekend, an entire newspaper hangs in the balance as an editor and publisher seek to invoke freedom of the press. Both films are about the search for truth, the verification of sources and the inevitable pushback from people, often in places of authority, who do not wish to fully inform the public.
For me, “The Post” was about much more than that. Alongside the story about journalistic heroes fighting for the freedom of the press is the story of Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post.
“The Post” draws attention to the presence of women in the newsroom, the streets and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. If they are there, they are few and far between. Except for Graham, who commands a room in her social life, but struggles with nerves and pressure in the boardroom.
Taking on the controversial story of the Pentagon Papers is her debut, her coming out, her grand entrance into what is clearly a man's world. By the end of the film, she has taken her rightful place at the head of The Post, not as the legacy of her father's daughter or her husband's wife, but as Kay Graham, herself.
This could not be done without a stellar supporting cast of journalists and her executive editor, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks.
While Bradlee and his reporters work to gather information, Graham must prepare herself to be the only woman in the boardroom. She rehearses key points, she takes notes, she takes a deep breath — but she rarely gets the chance to speak.
In short, she struggles with what pop culture describes as “imposter syndrome,” a term used to describe someone who feels insufficient in their knowledge, even if they have prepared for the test, earned their degree or qualified for that position. It is something many women experience.
But Graham keeps going, often with a smile, even in the face of verbal opposition. She thanks her naysayers “for their frankness” as they tell her time and again that she is destroying the legacy of The Post.
For most of the film, Graham walks a fine line between hostess and publisher. As long as she doesn’t involve herself too much in the running of her newspaper, she can be both. But she must choose between her longtime friendship with the Washington elite's Robert McNamara, who created the Vietnam Study Task Force in 1967 — which ultimately created the Pentagon Papers — and her role as a representative of the free press.
When Bradlee gets hold of the classified study, Graham ultimately must choose who she wants to be.
“If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print, then The Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist,” Bradlee says.
It may sound melodramatic, like a line from “Star Wars” about the empire already winning. And maybe, in the Nixon era, it seemed that way. But thanks to the efforts of The New York Times, The Washington Post and journalists like Bradlee and Graham, the media reaffirmed its right to freedom of the press.
In the end, Graham affirms both the role of the newspaper — for “outstanding news collection and reporting” and “dedication to the welfare of the nation and to the principles of the free press” — and herself. As she says, “We will carry on in the tradition that has been so well set.”
As a journalist and a woman, it is a legacy I can look up to.
On Sunday, Jan. 14, Siuslaw News Editor Ned Hickson and Features Editor Chantelle Meyer will participate in a Q&A at City Lights Cinemas at the end of the 3 p.m. showing of “The Post.” Joining them will be Mel Gurtov, one of the authors of the historic Pentagon Papers, who will introduce the film and take part in the discussion.
Write Siuslaw News Features Editor Chantelle Meyer at [email protected] or c/o Siuslaw News, 148 Maple St., Florence, Ore. 97439.