“THE POST,” Steven Spielberg’s film about The Washington Post’s Pentagon Papers coverage, in 1971, opens Friday. Meryl Streep has rightfully won raves as publisher Katharine Graham, who manages to triumph in a male-dominated corporate world and forms a powerful alliance with Tom Hanks’s cantankerous editor Ben Bradlee.
Making such a nonfiction movie somewhat limits Spielberg’s ability to create “Jaws”-like tension, as he does in his fictional classics. Still, a couple of sharks lurk in “The Post.”
One is the Nixon administration, which goes to court to block press accounts based on the stolen secret documents that reveal decades of US government deception about the Vietnam War. The other? The New York Times, which gets the Pentagon Papers scoop first, turning the Post into a jealous rival eager to catch up.
As a student of the Pulitzer Prizes, I rate “The Post” in a class with my favorite journalism movies: 1976’s “All the President’s Men” and 2015’s “Spotlight.” Those two capture the thrill of reporting that leads to a Pulitzer — at The Washington Post for exposing Nixon’s Watergate crimes in 1972, and at The Boston Globe for detailing, in 2002, sexual abuse of youngsters by Catholic priests and how it’s covered up by the church.
But the new movie’s study — of two high-pressure weeks that help transform the Post into a major national player — isn’t really about reporting at all. It focuses on the newspapering business, seen through Graham’s daunting challenges, both corporate and legal.
Antipathy to the new movie among Times staffers has become something of a media-industry joke. (The Columbia Journalism Review’s article about it was headlined “Hell Hath No Fury Like a New York Times Scorned by Hollywood.”) Current Post executive editor Marty Baron, best known to film audiences as the Globe editor portrayed in “Spotlight,” asked Hanks after a preview of the new movie what he thought of the Times’s reaction being “kind of apoplectic about the idea that this movie about the Pentagon Papers has focused on The Washington Post.” Graham is the key to “The Post,” the actor replied, and if she’d been at the Times instead, “We’d be calling it ‘The New York Times.’ ”
Part of the New York paper’s upset relates to its being seen as antagonists — rather than as the news organization whose Pentagon Papers reporting was first and best. Its work over three months of secretly researching and reporting the story, after all, won the Times — and not the Post — the Pulitzer for Public Service.
One recent article quotes 81-year-old Neil Sheehan, the Times’s lead Pentagon Papers reporter, as saying that its publisher at the time, the late Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger Sr., “was absolutely heroic in publishing the Pentagon Papers. . . . There was a precedent for Kay Graham. Punch had no precedent.”
A more visceral reaction comes from Fox Butterfield, on the four-person Times reporting team with Sheehan. Also a former Times Boston bureau chief, now retired, Butterfield seethed to me that “the Post’s was a second-day story. I was trained as a historian, and this is terrible history.” He added, “I’ve always loved ‘Schindler’s List,’ but now I want to go back and see how accurate a movie that is.”
Ben Bradlee Jr., the former Globe editor who was in charge of Spotlight’s clergy sex abuse stories, agrees that the new movie focuses on the Post because of “Katharine Graham’s coming of age, with Ben Sr. [his late father] as her wingman. . . . But in doing so, it does feel like the Times got screwed.” It would be, he added, “a little like giving ‘All the President’s Men’ to the Times.”
Since the Times’s Pentagon Papers reporting never got its own movie, where can one go for that “real” story? Well, the Times Co. just released an updated edition of its book “The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War.” Says the front-cover blurb: “’The most significant leaks of classified material in American history’—Washington Post.”
Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism.”