‘The Post’ celebrates First Amendment win

DOVER — Today’s column is not meant to be a film review, but rather an ode to the First Amendment and an old friend of the Delaware State News.

Last weekend, this editor took in “The Post” — starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks — and found it to be quite a thrilling story about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

As a newspaper editor, of course, I loved the hard sounds of the typewriters, linotype machines setting metal type, the rumble and whir of the press, the frantic reporting, the competitive nature of editors, pursuit of the truth, the wrangling and the decision-making.

It was about government secrets versus the public’s right to know.

And, in the end, it was a celebration of a First Amendment victory.

Perhaps my long-held appreciation for the “no cheering in the press box” rule helped me stifle my own joy in its conclusion.

But I couldn’t help but smile when I heard applause from the other side of the theater near the end of the film.

In a newsroom scene, a Washington Post reporter was relaying the Supreme Court decision on the rights of the Washington Post and New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers. She shared the words of Justice Hugo L. Black:

“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 Post” tells the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, secret government documents that were first leaked to the New York Times in 1971.

The Pentagon Papers traced the events and policy decisions that led to America’s involvement in Vietnam and had been leaked by former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.

The newspaper was accused of violating the Espionage Act and a judge ordered it to cease further publication of the information.

Meanwhile, the ever-competitive Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, wanted in on the story.

Ben Bagdikian

His assistant managing editor, Ben Bagdikian, figured out the source of the leaked information and retrieved copies of the document in a secretive trip to Boston.

The Washington Post, once it had obtained the documents, was in a race to report on what was in the documents. And, while weighing its potential impacts, you get to see the rise of Katherine Graham as publisher, and how she risked financial ruin with her decision to print the Pentagon Papers. You also hear introspective moments of Ms. Graham and editor Ben Bradlee as they wrestled with the coziness they had with politicos.

As the court worries weighed on the Post executives, Mr. Bagdikian is the one who champions the people’s right to know and pushes back attempts to delay while the legal concerns played out. One of the best Bagdikian lines in the film was, “The best way to assert the right to publish is to publish.”

Bob Odenkirk plays the role of Mr. Bagdikian in “The Post.”

“I’m proudest of just showing a bunch of professional journalists at work arguing and fighting and trying to figure out what they have a right to do and what’s right,” Mr. Odenkirk said in a CBS News interview. “My character is the true believer, the reporter who just wants the story and just wants to tell the public the story.

“If you have the truth, you should print it. And that’s an easy, strong opinion to have when you don’t have the responsibility of actually keeping the paper alive and you’re not the one who will go to jail.”

***

Now, about that friend of the Delaware State News.

Mr. Bagdikian was one of the founding trustees of the nonprofit trust that owns Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA.

This newspaper is a member of Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA and part of a nonprofit journalistic trust, which supports First Amendment rights and encourages and assists citizens in exercising those rights responsibly.

Independent pays taxes like any other company, but there are no shareholders, no dividends are paid, and all after-tax profits are reinvested in serving the mission.

INI’s board chair Joe Smyth, son of Delaware State News founder Jack Smyth, said Mr. Bagdikian helped inspire the transfer of his ownership to a nonprofit journalistic trust to preserve the company’s independence.

“I will always value my friendship with you and respect the dream you turned into reality,” Mr. Bagdikian told Mr. Smyth back in 2004.

Mr. Bagdikian was a harsh critic of big media companies, and once told Editor & Publisher magazine that he liked INI’s vision to reinvest profits into journalistic service “rather than becoming the property of a corporation that has other goals.”

In 1983, Mr. Bagdikian published a book, “The Media Monopoly,” that served as a warning that monopolization would serve the elites, lessen diversity in points of view, decrease hard news reporting and increase soft news.

Mr. Smyth said he had read the book and later heard Mr. Bagdikian speak at a convention. “We had an instant connection,” said Mr. Smyth.

Mr. Bagdikian served two terms on the INI board, the first starting in 1991 when it was first formed and his second ending in 2004.

Mr. Bagdikian was a national and foreign correspondent for newspapers and magazines; a reporter, editor and ombudsman for The Washington Post; author of eight books; and a professor and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He died in 2016 at the age of 96.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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