Spielberg’s Film The Post : Epic Tale of Press Freedoms Prevailing Over Government Censorship

Permission to reprint this blog post is granted by Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.

By David Rudenstine, author of The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case

Not many Hollywood films are made immediately in response to the outcome of a presidential election.  But that is what Steven Spielberg and Amy Pascal have done. They made the film The Post in response to President Donald Trump’s intense, repetitive, and vicious attacks on the legitimacy of the American press.

Indeed, perhaps unique in modern American political history, Trump has used the powerful pulpit of the presidency to insult, denigrate, and bully reporters. He has done so in an effort to convince the American public that reports from such media institutions as The New York TimesThe Washington PostCNNMSNBC are nothing more than “fake news” to which the public must turn both a deaf ear and a blind eye.

In savaging the American press, Trump wants to turn Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s magisterial vision of the press upside down. Black wrote that the purpose of the press was “to serve the governed, not the governors,” and that it had to be protected from government censorship so that “it could bare the secrets of government,” “inform the people,” and “expose deception in government.” For Black, a free press was mandatory if it were “to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.”

This president marches to the beat of a different drummer. Although Trump took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the constitution, he seems to have very little regard for the meaning of this basic charter. The sad fact is that the political and legal inclinations of this president often seem to tilt more towards those of repressive authoritarian rulers than they do towards the impulses of great American presidents.

This timely film dramatically portrays the enduring conflict between government control of information, and, the right of the people to know what its government is doing in its name, and in so doing it offers the American public an important lesson in democracy.

The Pentagon Study

A summary of the facts underpinning the film underscores the lessons of the Pentagon Papers legal case. That historic 1971 confrontation concerns a Top-Secret 7000-page Pentagon sponsored history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. This history was prepared by some three-dozen Pentagon “historians” from 1967-1969, and was based mainly on Pentagon documents. Its purpose was to map the decisions made over nearly a quarter century that resulted in the United States having over 500,000 land troops fighting a land war in Southeast Asia. When completed, only 15 copies of the study were made and they were all labeled “Top Secret-Sensitive.”

In the late winter of 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the so-called Pentagon historians, made most of the top-secret study available to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times. He did so because he believed that the history, as told by the government’s own words, established that American political leaders had misled, if not lied, to the American public about the war for many years. And he hoped that once the American public understood the scope of the government’s deceit it would demand an end to the war.

The New York Times Decision to Publish

The Times took three months to study the secret history and to prepare its reports. During those weeks, the editors and the newspaper lawyers argued over whether the newspaper could responsibly publish reports based on top-secret material.

Abe Rosenthal, the Times Executive editor, and others, including Max Frankel, argued that the newspaper had a duty to publish the reports so long as publication did not immediately and irreparably harm vital national security matters.

But the lawyers for the Times, and they included former attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., took an extreme position at the opposite end of the spectrum and told the publisher and editors that they had a patriotic duty to return the secret study to the government and to forgo all public reports. The lawyers warned the publisher and editors that publication might constitute treason.

The fierce and lengthy internal argument ended with the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger, making the courageous decision to publish the planned 10-part series.

And that is what the Times began to do two days later on Sunday, June 13. The next day Attorney General John Mitchell sent a telegram to the Times demanding that the newspaper cease publication forthwith or be sued by the government for a prior restraint. The newspaper declined to cease publication. That decision set the stage for what became a seminal Supreme Court decision defending the critical role of the press in a democratic society.

The Times Long-Standing Lawyers Quit, Floyd Abrams Gets Tapped, and a Rookie Judge Hears the Case

Once the Times informed Attorney General Mitchell that it would not stop publishing its Pentagon Papers series, the newspaper’s lawyers informed their client that they would not defend the Times against the Nixon administration’s effort to enjoin publication. That decision in turn caused the Times to scramble in the middle of the night to retain new lawyers – and the lawyers turned out to be Yale Law Professor Alexander Bickle and a young lawyer named Floyd Abrams who in time became the de facto dean of the national press bar – to represent the newspaper the next morning in the federal district court.

After the newspaper refused to consent to an injunction, District Judge Murray I. Gurfein – and he was a Nixon appointee and this was his first case – granted the United States government a temporary restraining order enjoining the Times from further publication pending a hearing set for that Friday. The next day, Saturday, Judge Gurfein ruled that the government failed to produce evidence that the Times Pentagon Papers series would injure national security and thus he denied the government a preliminary injunction.

The Washington Post Joins the Legal Confrontation

Two days before Judge Gurfein ruled, on Thursday of that week, Ellsberg managed to make available a substantial portion of the papers to The Washington Post. That afternoon and evening an intense debate raged within The Post over whether to publish excerpts from the papers the next day.

The Post’s business leaders and lawyers counseled delay. Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks in the film, and other editors and reporters insisted that the newspaper publish the report forthwith, as if to say to the Nixon administration on behalf of the nation’s press: you will not silence us.

It fell to Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, to make the decision, and the film presents this decision as if it were her coming of age decision as a business leader. Graham’s decision to publish not only helped establish her as independent, resourceful and committed to press freedoms, but it helped sustain the investigations in 1972 and 1973 by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Watergate Scandals at a time when few thought that The Washington Post’s reporting on Nixon’s so-called “dirty-tricks” was sound.

The Landmark Decision

It was a mere 15 days between the government’s filing of its action against the Times and the Supreme Court’s 6 to 3 decision upholding the right of the newspapers to publish the Pentagon Papers reports. The result was that the Times and the Post continued to publish their series, and no credible evidence has ever been produced that these reports injured the national security.

Since this was the first time in the nation’s history that the government had tried to restrain a newspaper from publishing reports on the ground of national security, the press’s victory reverberated not only throughout press circles, but around the nation making the paperback version of the Pentagon Papers a must-have book.

The Film, American Democracy, the Supreme Court

Although the film gives a bow to The New York Times for its historic and magisterial role in defining press rights in this seminal clash, the fact that the film is focused on Graham and Bradlee necessarily robs the Times of its center-stage role in this landmark case.

No film can save the American press from Trump’s vicious onslaught. Only the American people can do that. The people will have to decide whether there are such things as facts, whether facts matter in the discussion of public issues, and how much they cherish the concept of “truth” in journalism. If too many Americans continue to swoon under Trump’s spell and turn his mendacity into the new “normal” of American politics, the nation will quickly head towards a serious crackup. And no film can rescue the nation from that fate.

The Post is not just timely, it is an important film because President Trump’s assault on the press is eating away at the legitimacy of the press, and the nation’s political system requires a responsible press in which the people trust. By dramatically portraying a constitutional crisis that occurred nearly a half century ago when there was no guarantee that the Supreme Court would respect the nation’s most basic tenets and strengthen its democracy, it offers lessons for today. As it turned out, the court in that seminal case did the right thing, and the right of the people to know what its government does because of an uncensored press was immeasurably strengthened.

Hopefully, the members on the Supreme Court today will absorb the lessons of that historic case. The press is critical to holding the government accountable and to do that, it must be free. So, if President Trump tries to utilize the immense power of the national government to gag the press, it will fall to the nine members of the Supreme Court to be the guardians of democratic values, and hopefully we can count on them to do just that.

Professor David Rudenstine is the author of The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, and The Age of Deference: The Supreme Court, National Security, and the Constitutional Order.


Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism


The mainstream media’s recent angst and hand-wringing about a surge of “fake news” has tended to ignore that the media themselves have often been purveyors of bogus tales and dubious interpretations.

“Fake news” has plenty of antecedents in mainstream media — several cases of which are documented in my book, Getting It Wrong, a new, expanded edition of which was published recently.

The book examines and debunks media-driven myths, which are well-known stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, dissolve as false or wildly exaggerated. Think of them as prominent cases of “fake news” that have masqueraded as a fact for years. Decades, even.

Continue reading “Debunking Media Myths, Those Prominent Cases of Fake News”

For the Last Time, the Washington Post Did Not Bring Down Nixon

In his latest blog post, W. Joseph Campbell undertakes the Sisyphean task of discrediting yet another media myth: the notion that the Washington Post was vital to the outcome of Watergate. This widely held belief “is the stuff of legend,” Campbell says. Read on for the full scoop on what really brought down Nixon. Maybe this time the truth will stick.

Getting It Wrong coverThe Wall Street Journal blog “India Real Time” indulged yesterday in the conventional but mistaken narrative of the Watergate scandal, declaring that the Washington Postplayed a pivotal role in effectively bringing down then U.S. President Richard Nixon.”

Effectively brought down Nixon, eh?

Not even the Post buys into that misreading of Watergate history.

As I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the newspaper’s publisher during and after the Watergate scandal, Katharine Graham, dismissed that interpretation, declaring in 1997:

“Sometimes people accuse us of bringing down a president, which of course we didn’t do. The processes that caused [Nixon’s] resignation were constitutional.”

Similarly, the newspaper’s executive editor during Watergate, Ben Bradlee, has asserted:

“[I]t must be remembered that Nixon got Nixon. The Post didn’t get Nixon.”

Such comments aren’t the manifestation of false modesty. Far from it. Rather, they represent candid observations about the peripheral role the Post played in uncovering the scandal that brought about Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Read the full post on Campbell’s blog, Media Myth Alert.

The Truth About Halloween 1938

Halloween conjures up memories of one of the spookiest events in broadcast history: Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, which aired on Halloween eve in 1938. “No single program in American broadcasting has inspired more fear, controversy, and endless fascination,” writes W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism.

In the video below, Campbell explains that the narrative that listeners by the tens, or even hundreds of thousands were gripped by mass panic, believing the Earth was under Martian attack, was largely a misrepresentation by the media. Campbell further describes his research and the motivations behind this media-driven myth in an interview with Big Think, noting that “[f]or newspapers, Welles’ radio spoof offered an irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy, and immature medium.”

A Myth of Mass Hysteria

Welles and 'War of the Worlds'
Welles and 'War of the Worlds'

In his latest blog post, W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong, discusses a media myth “too well-known, too entrenched in the American consciousness, ever to fall into disuse.” How could such an unsubstantiated belief take hold? Campbell explains below:

“October always brings frequent reminders about radio’s most memorable and myth-beclouded program–Orson Welles’ superb dramatization of the War of the Worlds that aired on Halloween eve 1938.

So realistic was Welles’ show, so alarming were its simulated news reports of invading Martians, that listeners by the tens of thousands—or more—were convulsed in panic and hysteria.

Fright beyond measure gripped the country that night; it was the night that panicked America. …”

Read the full post on Campbell’s blog, Media Myth Alert.

Getting it Wrong: New Podcast with W. Joseph Campbell

photo of W. Joseph CampbellW. Joseph Campbell takes the media down a peg in the latest UC Press podcast. Campbell, whose book Getting it Wrong addresses ten widely held myths perpetuated by the news media, says these stories undercut the idea that American journalism is a truth-seeking endeavor.

Campbell is particularly skeptical about the myth of superlative reporting that journalists tell themselves about Hurricane Katrina. The notion that media outlets, by and large, stood up to negligent government authorities and called out their lapses in delivering aid is not only self-congratulatory, he argues, but overlooks the dramatically flawed reporting that took place after the event—wildly exaggerated tales of anarchy, mayhem, nightmarish violence and other dystopian scenarios.

To hear Campbell’s take on Katrina, and on current stories that are becoming media-driven myths, listen to the podcast:  

Nixon Quits – 36 Years On

W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written four other books, and he frequently blogs about media-driven myths at Media Myth Alert.  Read is latest blog post below or at mediamythalert.wordpress.com.


Richard Nixon resigned the presidency 36 years ago today–the only American president to have done so.

He left the White House on August 9, 1974, to avoid certain impeachment and conviction. By then it had become clear that Nixon had ordered senior aides to cover up the Watergate scandal’s signal crime, the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic national headquarters.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book about media-driven myths, forcing Nixon’s resignation “required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But in the years since 1974, the dominant popular narrative of the Watergate scandal has become the heroic-journalist meme, the widely held notion that the investigative reporting of two young, tireless reporters for the Washington Post led the way in bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Such claims appear often in the news media, both in the United States and abroad.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, “The heroic-journalist has become the most familiar storyline of Watergate: ready short-hand for understanding Watergate and its denouement, a proxy for grasping the scandal’s essence while avoiding its forbidding complexity.”

Indeed, 19 men associated with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972 went to jail for crimes in the Watergate scandal–a revealing marker of the scandal’s reach and complexity.

I write in Getting It Wrong that how “the Post and its reporters uncovered Watergate is deeply ingrained in American journalism as one of the field’s most important and self-reverential stories.”

So why has the heroic-journalist interpretation of Watergate become the dominant popular narrative?

Three related reasons offer themselves, I write in Getting It Wrong.

They are:

* the well-timed release in June 1974 of All the President’s Men, the best-selling book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting
* the cinematic version of the book, which was released in 1976 to very favorable reviews, and
* the decades-long guessing game about the identity of the helpful and anonymous high-level source, code-named “Deep Throat,” with whom Woodward surreptitiously met while investigating Watergate. The secret source was introduced in All the President’s Men and immediately prompted considerable speculation as to who he was.

“These factors,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “combined to place Woodward and Bernstein at the center of Watergate in popular consciousness, and project the notion that the scandal’s outcome pivoted on disclosures reported by the news media.”

This is especially so in the movie All the President’s Men, which, I write, “offers an unmistakable assertion of the power and centrality of the press in Nixon’s fall.”

The movie also suggested their reporting was more hazardous than it was, that by digging into Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein exposed themselves to not insignificant risk and peril.

However, to explain Watergate through the lens of the heroic-journalist is, I note, “to abridge and misunderstand the scandal and to indulge in a particularly beguiling media-driven myth.

“The heroic-journalist interpretation minimizes the far more decisive forces that unraveled the scandal and forced Nixon from office”–the special Watergate prosecutors, the federal judges, bipartisan congressional panels, the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Supreme Court.

Even then, I argue, Nixon probably would have survived in office and served out his term–albeit as a wounded and weakened chief executive–had it not been for the existence of the audiotapes he made of many of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Only when ordered by the Supreme Court in late July 1974 did Nixon surrender those recordings, which captured him plotting the cover-up and authorizing payments of thousands of dollars in hush money.

Interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover the defining and decisive element of the Watergate scandal—the existence of the audiotaping system that Nixon had installed in the Oval Office.

And the tapes were decisive in ultimately forcing his resignation.


Media myths often travel well, crossing linguistic borders with ease

Media-driven myths can crop up around the world, undaunted by borders of language barriers. In this guest post, W. Joseph Campbell explores why certain myths know no bounds.

W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting it Wrong, is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written four other books, and he frequently blogs about media-driven myths at MediaMythAlert.

Prominent media-driven myths―the subject of my new book, Getting It Wrong—not only can be tenacious; some of them travel quite well, crossing linguistic and cultural borders with surprising ease. Indeed, it’s a emblem of hardy appeal when media-driven myths traverse linguistic boundaries more than just occasionally.

The heroic-journalist myth of Watergate—one of the 10 media myths I explore in Getting It Wrong―represents this phenomenon quite well. The heroic-journalist meme has it that the fearless investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both then-young journalists for the Washington Post, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency in the Watergate scandal.

It’s a compelling tale that long ago became the scandal’s dominant narrative. It’s also a simplistic interpretation of what was a complex and intricate web of criminal conduct that not only took down Nixon but landed nearly 20 of his top aides and associates in jail.

I write in Getting It Wrong that to roll up a scandal of such dimension required the collective, if not always the coordinated, efforts of special prosecutors, bipartisan congressional panels, federal judges, the FBI, and, ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered Nixon to surrender audiotapes that proved his complicity in the Watergate cover-up. Against such a tableau, journalism’s contributions to unraveling Watergate were modest—and certainly not decisive.

But because the heroic-journalist interpretation is so straightforward and unambiguous, it’s not surprising that it finds appeal across cultures and turns up fairly often in media reports outside the United States. Simplicity propels the Watergate myth, enabling it to travel far and well.

Just the other day, for example, a commentary posted at Mediapart, a French online investigative reporting site, recalled Woodward and Bernstein as “the two journalists for the Washington Post who, thanks to their investigation, set in motion the resignation of President Richard Nixon, during Watergate.”

Another media myth that travels widely and well is that of William Randolph Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. Hearst’s pledge supposedly was contained in a cable to the artist Frederic Remington, whom Hearst sent to draw illustrations of the Cuban rebellion, which preceded the Spanish-American War.

The anecdote lives on as one of the most famous and delicious in American journalism—even though it is buttressed by no supporting documentation and is improbable on its face. It is, though, a tale almost too good not to be true. And it turns up periodically abroad, especially in Spanish-language media.

I write in Getting It Wrong that “Hearst’s famous vow to ‘furnish the war’ has achieved unique status as an adaptable, hardy, all-purpose anecdote, useful in illustrating any number of media sins and shortcomings. It has been invoked to illustrate the media’s willingness to compromise impartiality, promote political agendas, and indulge in sensationalism. It has been used, more broadly, to suggest the media’s capacity to inject malign influence into international affairs.”
With all that going for it, the anecdote’s step to its adoption and use in international contexts is fairly small.

Beyond simplicity and sheer deliciousness, the international appeal of prominent media myths also may be attributed to a keen and enduring curiosity abroad in American journalism. For all its faults and uncertainties, American journalism is a sprawling, robust, and intriguing profession. That dynamism exerts appeal and interest beyond the United States.

American cinema is perhaps a more powerful force: Hollywood treatments have helped solidify media myths. And Hollywood productions often travel well abroad. The 1976 film All the President’s Men helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, for example. As I write in Getting It Wrong: “More than thirty-five years later, what remains most vivid, memorable, and accessible about Watergate is the cinematic version of All the President’s Men.”

The movie, I note, “helped ensure the [heroic-journalist] myth would live on by offering a neat, tidy, and vastly simplified account the Watergate scandal, one that allowed viewers to sidestep the scandal’s complexity while engaging in an entertaining storyline.”

Hollywood also was crucial to cementing Hearst’s purported vow into the popular consciousness. That vehicle was Citizen Kane, the 1941 motion picture based loosely on Hearst’s life and times. Hearst’s purported vow is paraphrased in a scene early in Kane, which some critics regard as the best-ever American motion picture.

The Hearstian vow also is quoted in the 1997 James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Or, as it was known in francophone countries, Demain ne meurt jamais.

Combating media myths: Are there antidotes to the junk food of journalism?

Media-driven myths are misleading and persistent, and can have damaging consequences, as W. Joseph Campbell writes in Getting it Wrong. Some have been around for more than 100 years, and more continue to emerge from misreported news stories and widely repeated anecdotes. But as Campbell shows in this guest post, while media myths are powerful, they are not invincible.

W. Joseph Campbell

Media-driven myths—those false, dubious, yet prominent stories about the news media that masquerade as factual—can be considered to be the junk food of journalism. They’re alluring and delicious, but not especially wholesome or healthy.

As is discussed in Getting It Wrong, media-driven myths can spring from many sources. War is an especially fertile breeding ground for media myths, partly because the shock of combat is alien and unfamiliar to most people. Given their limited first-hand experience with war, media audiences often are in no position to challenge reports from the battlefield.

“The confusion and intensity inherent in warfare can lead journalists to place fragmented information that emerges from conflict into recognizable if sometimes misleading frames,” I write in Getting It Wrong.

An example of that came early in the Iraq War in 2003, with the Washington Post’s erroneous report about the supposed battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch, a topic discussed in Getting It Wrong. The Post’s characterization of Lynch as a female Rambo, pouring lead into attacking Iraqis, did not seem entirely implausible. It was, after all, a story picked up by news organizations throughout the world. Hurried and sloppy reporting, which certainly figured in the sensational report about Lynch, also contributes to the rise to media myths.

The myth of “crack babies” of the late 1980s and 1990s was certainly propelled by hurried reporting, by over-eager journalism and by premature medical findings. Reporters and columnists pushed too hard and eagerly on preliminary and inconclusive research about children born to women who took crack cocaine during pregnancy. The horrors that many journalists predicted—that “crack babies” would grow up to be a vast, permanently dependent class, a so-called “bio-underclass” of staggering dimension—proved quite wrong.

So are there any antidotes to media-driven myths?

I argue in Getting It Wrong that while “they spring from multiple sources, it is not as if media-driven myths are beyond being tamed.” To thwart or slow the spread of media myths, journalists might start by applying a measure of skepticism to pithy, telling quotes such as William Randolph Hearst‘s vow to “furnish the war” with Spain at the end of the 19th century. Turns of phrase that sound too neat and too tidy often are too good to be true.

Journalists also would do well to cultivate greater recognition of their fallibility. Too often they seem faintly concerned with correcting the record they tarnish. They tend not to much like revisiting major flaws and errors. As Jack Shafer, media critic for the online magazine Slate, has written: “The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact—proper spellings of last names, for example—than they are at fixing a botched story.”

Not surprisingly, there was no sustained effort by the news media to set straight the record about the chimerical scourge of “crack babies.” Not surprisingly, there was little sustained effort to explore and explain the distorted and badly flawed reporting from New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Encouraging a culture of skepticism and tolerance for viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms also would help curb the rise and dissemination of media-driven myths. Newsrooms can seem like bastions of group-think. Michael Kelly, the former editor of National Journal, once observed: “Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Group-think and viewpoint diversity are not topics often discussed in American newsrooms. But they’re hardly irrelevant. It is not inconceivable that a robust newsroom culture that embraces encourages skepticism, invites challenges to dominant narratives, and rewards contrarian thinking would have helped thwart publication of embarrassingly mistaken tales such as the Post’s account about Jessica Lynch.

Another antidote to media-driven myths can be found in the digitization of newspapers and other media content. Digitization has made it easier than ever to consult and scrutinize source material from the past. Never has journalism’s record been more readily accessible, through such databases as ProQuest and LexisNexis.

Reading what was written makes it clear that radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds in 1938 created nothing approaching nationwide panic and hysteria. Reading what was written makes clear that Edward R. Murrow’s televised critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 was belated and quite unremarkable.

Reading what was written can be a straightforward and effective antidote to media-driven myths.

W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong, is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written four other books. Getting It Wrong was launched this month in a program at the Newseum, the museum of news in downtown Washington, D.C.