by Marcy Rothenberg
I love movies about the American press. I’ve been an avid newspaper reader since childhood. I penned a news column about my junior high school for the local Valley News and Green Sheet as a 12-year-old, chosen by my journalism teacher for the honor. And I never missed field trips to the LA Times, where we’d visit the press room and watch workers painstakingly type text into noisy machines and then place lead strips containing reversed letters into the printing press – all so people across the city could read the latest news the next morning.
Words were magic. Getting them out quickly and accurately was art. And educating people about important issues was public service.
So I was thrilled to hear that Steven Spielberg had halted work on one movie in February 2016, to rush a script he’d just discovered into production and on to the screen by year-end. That script was “The Post” – the story of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous and risky decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend that you do.
Because “The Post” isn’t just a historical accounting of the actions of one newspaper to get the facts out to the American people about our government’s decades-long effort to mislead us about why we’d sent hundreds of thousands of young Americans to fight in Vietnam, or about the supposed progress we were making in that war.
Equally important to that telling of history is the movie’s message about freedom of the press and the constitutional protection against prior restraint – the effort by government officials or private organizations to prevent a media organization or book publisher from reporting something because they don’t want the story told.
The Post seized the opportunity to share the Pentagon Papers after the Nixon Justice Department ordered its rival, The New York Times, to halt its publication. One of the Post’s writers tracked down Daniel Ellsberg, the Rand Corporation staffer who he suspected had leaked them to the Times, and convinced him to share them with the Post.
Graham’s decision to publish led Nixon’s team to sue the Post as well.
The press prevailed in that legal battle over prior restraint, taking the case to the United States Supreme Court, where Justice Hugo Black wrote in what would be his final, and perhaps most important, opinion on the bench: “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. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” [Emphasis mine.]
All of this makes for great film drama. More important, it offers us three critical, timely lessons about the role of the press in covering the American presidency today.
When Donald Trump calls a product of the free press “fake news,” he weakens our ability to distinguish between fact and lie – and between news outlets that are providing factual reportage and those that are distorting reality for partisan advantage.
It’s no surprise, for example, that multiple independent research studies over the past decade have found that watching only Fox News leaves viewers less well informed than Americans who watch no news at all. As Business Insider reported in 2016, the award-winning Politifact has determined that “almost 60 percent of statements made on Fox News have been rated ‘mostly false,’ ‘false’ or pure ‘pants on fire’…far worse than any other media channel in the country.”
When Donald Trump has his attorneys send a letter to the author and publisher of a book critical of him and his presidency, threatening them with legal action if they do not “cease and desist” from publishing, he threatens to destroy constitutional protections against prior restraint.
And when Donald Trump calls libel laws “a sham and a disgrace” – conveniently ignoring the fact that those very laws have protected him repeatedly from lawsuits over the false, slanderous and demeaning statements he has uttered about other people (including his “birther” lies about President Barack Obama) – he sows confusion among less well informed citizens about what our libel laws actually stand for and creates dissension among our citizenry.
Not only do our libel laws already protect us against “purposely negative and horrible and false articles,” Mr. President, but they also apply to you. We the People have the absolute right to know if your administration is honest or corrupt, public serving or self-aggrandizing, patriotic or beholden to a foreign power.
Words matter. And words used by the free press to inform citizens about the facts of our democracy are protected against censorship, as they should and must be.
But words used to distract and misinform the American people, words used to protect an individual from the legal consequences of his actions, words used to deflect blame to others for actions one has taken himself, are antithetical to all that we stand for as a nation.
It is those words that We the People, and our public servants in the press, must challenge – especially when they come from the lips of the person who sits in the Oval Office.
Marcy Rothenberg is a local writer and political activist who advocates on community, environmental and women’s issues, and whose graduate research analyzed endorsement, messaging and financing disparities in women’s and men’s political campaigns in California. As a member of then candidate Barack Obama’s National Urban and Metropolitan Policy Committee in 2008, she served as a rapid response writer for the campaign.