Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Trump, the Pentagon Papers and ‘fake news’

Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee left US District Court in 1971, as the paper fought to publish the Pentagon Papers.
Associated Press/File
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee left US District Court in 1971, as the paper fought to publish the Pentagon Papers.

The real star of “The Post” is the Supreme Court and its 6-3 decision to let the presses roll again on the secret Pentagon Papers and their shocking revelations about the Vietnam War.

That sacred commitment to a free press over government’s desire to suppress critical information — that’s at serious risk under the current administration. Fat-shaming President Trump is Internet entertainment. The real shame to America comes not from a tubby commander in chief inhaling nightly cheeseburgers, but from one feasting on promises to hand out “Fake News Awards” to critics in the media.

Of course, the country needs brave publishers and editors, just as it did back in 1971, and “The Post” artfully depicts both. I clapped when Katharine Graham gave the go-ahead to allow The Washington Post to publish the papers after the Nixon administration stopped The New York Times from printing them. I teared up when newspapers carrying the Post’s page-one story were hurled from delivery trucks. The clacking typewriters and pay-phone calls to sources brought back fond memories, just as the claque of very important white men making most of the decisions aroused less fond ones.

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Graham’s ultimate choice to stand up to power was historic and worthy of star billing. But in the end, all the editorial courage in the world is nothing if the judicial branch does not act on behalf of the people to check an overreaching executive branch — and, with that crucial curb on authoritarian enthusiasm, backs up the Fourth Estate.

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Under Trump, does anyone doubt the goal is to achieve a 6-3 vote against press freedom, rather than 6-3 in its favor? As Richard North Patterson writes, Trump is already delivering the judiciary Republicans always fantasized about: “a dream team of right-wing enablers committed to advancing conservative ideology and corporate interests.”

The second part of Trump’s fantasy — to destroy the press by undermining its credibility with the American public — could also become reality. According to “American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy,” a new report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation, only 33 percent of those surveyed currently have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of the news media. And Trump’s “fake news” howls play to the dramatic breakdown of trust along political lines. According to this report, 54 percent of Democrats hold a favorable view of the news media, while only 15 percent of Republicans do.

Trump also knows how to play the press like a Twitter-tuned violin. His tweets drive the news for days, even as he trumpets contempt for any negative coverage he gets. Following the frenzy of unflattering headlines out of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Trump renewed his promise to “take a strong look” at the country’s libel laws. Before the book’s release, a lawyer for Trump sent a cease-and-desist letter to the publisher, demanding that it be withheld from stores. Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s personal lawyers, also filed a defamation suit against Buzzfeed for publishing the so-called Russia dossier, as well as a defamation suit against an executive of the research company that compiled the report.

This week, Trump ordered Jim Acosta out of the Oval Office after the CNN correspondent persisted in shouting out questions relating to vulgar and racist remarks reportedly uttered by the president during a recent meeting to discuss immigration policy. In “The Post,” President Nixon is heard instructing his press secretary to ban Post reporters from covering him.

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If only he had thought to bellow “Fake news!” as stories about the Pentagon Papers rolled off the press. It’s easy to imagine Trump doing that and scary to think how many people today might believe his lies over the devastating truth.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.