Since it isn’t being actively marketed to teens, you may not have seen the two-minute trailer for director Steven Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Opening in Atlanta on Jan. 12, the film chronicles a pinnacle event in the real life of Katharine Graham, who, after her husband commits suicide, becomes the new publisher of The Washington Post, which was unheard of at the time for a woman. Set in 1971, toward the end of the Vietnam War, the movie is a tale of female empowerment, protest and social responsibility under an oppressive presidential administration that very much mirrors the current administration.
While a movie about journalism can sound like a drag, Spielberg manages to make it feel like a psychological thriller. The film score by John Williams, along with Spielberg’s direction, give the movie its thrills. Even though you know what happens, “The Post” is dramatic and has you leaning off the edge of your chair, begging the characters to do the right thing. While set in the early 1970s, “The Post” feels as if it could’ve happened last year, if not for the characters’ usages of pay phones and landlines.
Back then, The Washington Post wasn’t nearly as big as it is now. The Post competed with The New York Times on a daily basis. The turning point that made The Post into a serious paper was the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that for nearly three decades, U.S. presidential administrations had blatantly lied to the American public about America’s involvement and motives in Vietnam.
The New York Times actually broke the news first. The original NYT article with the headline “Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces Three Decades of Growing US Involvement,” subsequently results in a request from President Richard Nixon for the New York Times to cease publishing the confidential government papers it had acquired. When The Washington Post receives the same information, Graham, who has only been leader a short while, has to decide whether to risk everything she has, including her freedom and her family’s business, and go against a notoriously anti-press administration.
So, how and why does this apply to teens? The message behind the film is this — “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” asks Tom Hanks’ character Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of The Washington Post when Graham came to power as publisher.
The importance of a free and uncensored press is unquestionable. This movie is important right now for a plethora of reasons. During his presidency, President Nixon, like President Donald Trump now, had a combative relationship with the press. According to The New Yorker, he attempted to bar news sources from large events in American history, like the weddings of his daughters. In the movie, actual sound files from Nixon’s phone calls reveal that he hated the media and had intentions to censor the media when reporting on him.
Nixon’s attitudes toward the press resemble Trump’s when it comes to media outlets that publish stories he doesn’t like. Much like Nixon, Trump has threatened (on Twitter) to try and take away permissions from media outlets, although he doesn’t have the power to do so. Trump has also purposefully been on a tirade to try and put a wedge between news providers and the people they serve.
Although “fake news” will most likely always exist, President Trump has sensationalized the phrase, creating a following that either can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, or believe that news they don’t like is automatically “fake news.”
And while other presidents weren’t as public with their hatred for the free press, there are other, more sneaky ways politicians try to censor our coverage of them. A topic that’s covered in the film is the gray area that is a relationship between politicians and journalists. How can you be friends with the people you are supposed to cover? Alternatively, how do you maintain a friendship with someone whose job it is to point out everything you’re doing wrong?
Around the world today and in our own backyards, the distribution of information is being challenged by politicians and civilians alike. In December, for example, President Trump’s administration banned the government-funded Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using words such as “transgender” and “fetus” in their correspondence with the public. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to do away with net neutrality, making it completely legal for internet service providers to slow speeds for websites they don’t like or morally agree with. In other countries, such as Turkey, many journalists and publishers go to jail and are prosecuted for publishing stories their government doesn’t agree with.
As a journalist and a teenager living in a time period similar to the one portrayed in the movie, Katharine Graham’s story inspires me. The purpose of the press is to hold the government and those in power in check, and Graham knew that — that’s why she, a person who knew nothing about running a major newspaper was able to be so brave and go after an administration she knew would attack her.
The brilliant thing about 2017, though, is that anyone can really be a journalist. Twitter is often hailed as a wonderful place to livestream a revolution. Many news sites rely on our social media posts to get coverage and photos of life-changing events. In the movie, Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee explains, “The only right to protect the right to publish is to publish.” The fact that we live in a country where ads that point out the incompetence of our leader can air and even movies like “The Post” exist is amazing.
As teens, we should exercise our right to free speech and actively fight for the First Amendment that protects our right to a free media, freedom of speech, and freedom to protest and petition. If we, as teenagers, make it a part of our lives to exercise the rights outlined in the First Amendment, then we can guarantee that those rights will be protected for teenagers, whether the year is 1971 or 2018.