Jan 23rd 2018

Steven Spielberg's The Post is a timely reminder of the constitutional importance of a free press

by Emma Long

Lecturer in American Studies, University of East Anglia

The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government
Justice Hugo Black, New York Times v. US (1971).

Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, which explores the events that led up to New York Times v. US, echoes Black’s sentiment. The film tells the little known story of how the Washington Post came to be the second newspaper after the New York Times to publish extracts of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”. The case helped to expose the lies and half-truths told to the American people about the Vietnam War by their own government and standing up to the bullying of the Nixon administration in the process.

The film addresses many themes, including sexism in the workplace, industry competition, journalistic integrity and the problems of an industry facing increasing financial pressures. But at heart The Post is nothing short of a love letter to the press and to the journalistic profession.

Like the successful TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale in 2016, The Post comes weighted with relevance to contemporary events in ways not necessarily anticipated by those involved. Donald Trump’s attacks on the press by labelling as “fake news” anything the president doesn’t like have echoes in the diatribes against the “liberal” press from Nixon.

The use of Nixon’s White House tapes in the film make the parallels to today strikingly clear. If Spielberg’s film is concerned about threats to the press, it is not by those posed by the president – but those from financial pressures, news as entertainment and an increasing tendency to devalue the work of journalists. What The Post seeks to remind us is that the role of investigative journalism is important and that we should not take it for granted.

Founded on freedoms

The founding generation believed in the importance of a free press: it is protected alongside freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The US has a mixed history of protecting the rights of those deemed to be outside of the mainstream – but, in the 20th century, the Supreme Court was very clear about the important role played in the life and government of the nation by the members of the Fourth Estate.

To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.

With these words, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in Near v. Minnesota (1931), defended the right of the even the most scandalous of newspapers to publish. In 1964, shortly before the events depicted in The Post, the court addressed attempts by southern juries to use hefty libel fines to intimidate reporters into dropping coverage of civil rights protests and provided what remains one of the most sweeping protections offered to the press in US constitutional law.

Justice William Brennan expressed the unanimous opinion of the Court in New York Times v. Sullivan when he wrote:

… the pall of fear and timidity imposed upon those who would give voice to public criticism is an atmosphere in which the First Amendment freedoms cannot survive.

Justice Black took this one step further in his concurring opinion:

I doubt that a country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticising their government, its actions, or its officials.

The occasional error by the media is the price to be paid, they asserted, for the existence of an institution which should ensure government accountability and transparency. Limiting the right of the press to explore ideas and expose wrongdoing would only weaken the nation, no matter how unsavoury those ideas might seem at the time.

Trumping press freedom

But the press faces a growing threat from which even the broad protections of the First Amendment cannot protect it. “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” wrote Justice Black, a line quoted triumphantly in the closing moments of The Post. The quote reveals the assumption at the heart of the film, the court’s opinions and even the First Amendment itself: that the public are paying attention to what the press is reporting.

But what happens when “the governed” are uninterested in the work of the press, or consider investigative journalism of the kind portrayed in The Post (or in All The President’s Men or, more recently, Spotlight) as being on a par with “news” received from online blogs, or, perhaps worse, consider such reporting as false?

…The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

So wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Abrams v. US in 1919. Holmes suggested that “truth” was determined by the operation of the market – if an idea could win over a majority, in a democracy it might as well be truth. And this is where Trump’s accusations of “fake news” are most troubling. If he can convince a majority of Americans that the news offered by CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others, is fake, then who’s to say it isn’t?

Ironically, the protections offered the press by the Supreme Court’s reading of the First Amendment may well be the reason Trump has been forced to resort to claims of “fake news”. Denied the ability to ban, abolish, fine, or prosecute the media for publishing and airing stories to which he objects, dismissing their activities as fake, lies, and part of a conspiracy to discredit him is really the only option available.

That for some Americans those claims are gaining traction says more about the American public and the state of US politics than it does about the protections offered by the constitution. It might well prove that Holmes was right – even the strongest constitutional protections may not be enough to protect the American public from themselves and “truth” may be whatever the majority decides. For those fearful of this possibility, using their constitutional protections and continuing to speak out may be the best way to ensure that those rights remain vigorous and real. The Post reminds us, in the best possible way, that it can and should be done.

Emma Long, Lecturer in American Studies, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Movie Reviews

Oct 4th 2023
EXTRATS: "Sir Michael Gambon, who died on September 28 at the age of 82, was a hugely versatile actor who enjoyed numerous and varied roles in film and television throughout the course of his long career." .... "Though he retired from the theatre in 2015, Gambon continued to act in film and TV until just before his 80th birthday. It was that mesmerising combination of rage and vulnerability that always made him a compelling screen actor to watch, making audiences always care about the characters he inhabited."
Oct 4th 2023
EXTRACT: "....to my mind, in order to elevate acting to that kind of level, there has to be a deep undercurrent of human empathy. Of course, I never met Michael Gambon, but I imagine those who knew him and worked with him would confirm that."
Aug 5th 2023
EXTRACT: "This propulsive show understands the total unwavering commitment that kitchen brigades feel. Our research, informed by interviews with 62 elite chefs, indicates that chefs work in the region of 12 to 20 hours per day. Such perceived commitment to their work translates to ideas of a strong and resilient professional that has to choose between having a family and doing a job they are really good at. So is it really as stressful for these chefs as The Bear depicts? Yes chef, it really is."
Oct 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Having watched both the original and Hagai Levi’s remake, I am struck by the intensity of both and, in contrast to many reviewers of the new HBO mini-series, many who disparage it, I assert that Levi has, in fact done a sterling job of both recreating and, indeed, increasing the intensity of the original. The performances by Chastain and Isaacs are marvelous, moving, and in each episode, both hold the viewer with their immersions in the roles."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "I have questioned before whether certain works explicitly thematising traumatic events amount to a meaningful response. They could be criticised for rendering the trauma aesthetic. This has the potential, as cultural theorist Theodor Adorno warned in response to art after the Holocaust, of enabling people to derive pleasure from it, and that can be heinous. I would not wish to argue that composers, or other artists, should refrain from engaging with such events, nor that there have not been immensely successful works of this type."
Feb 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the skeleton of the ship emerges from the sand, it is a metaphor for the transience of human life, particularly poignant with war looming. Edith says to Brown, “We die and decay and don’t live on.” He counters, “From the first human hand-print on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous, so we don’t really die.” The idea that all human lives are connected through the thread of the past is at the heart of burial archaeology, which is not about treasure but unearthing relationships between the living and their memories of the dead."
Nov 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Peter Morgan’s fourth season of The Crown faces perhaps its greatest challenge so far. The 1980s was one of the most documented, catalogued, debated and scrutinised decades of the House of Windsor. Morgan will, no doubt be keenly aware of viewers using telephoto lenses to, once again, see if the program-makers “get it right”....... They do.
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Camera moves were choreographed to allow two scenes that were filmed in the same location at different times to be taken into the computer and “stitched” together as if they were one complete shot. Doing this over and over enabled the illusion of one continuous sequence. Like many films though, 1917 used a host of other visual effects techniques that were unseen. This is often regarded as the pinnacle of success in visual effects – an effect that can’t be seen versus one that is smacking you in the face with a large, wet fish."
Jan 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) has received Oscar nominations in several of the same categories as her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017). Most notably, another writing nomination for Gerwig, this time in the adapted screenplay category. However, Little Women, unlike Lady Bird, did not earn her a nomination for best director. The shortlist for that category is, for the 87th time in 92 ceremonies, all male, and some might say, all rather macho to boot."
Nov 27th 2019


Whistle-blower: Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun.
Nov 5th 2019
Extract: "From October 16-27, over four hundred films were screened from 68 countries. I saw thirteen of these. The most inspiring was Varda by Agnés—and I’ll close this essay with her: Find her films, see them, cherish them. The list that follows runs from two—I can’t help but say this—clunkers to all the rest that are well-worth seeing—if you can find them."
Oct 16th 2018
........one hopes, Asia will become a bigger part of Hollywood culture, with more films featuring Asian locales and actors. Produced for just $30 million (compared to over $300 million for Disney’s “Avengers: Infinity War”), “Crazy Rich Asians” has already grossed over $200 million worldwide.
Sep 18th 2018
Yes, life is unreliable. Yes, life sometimes is unbelievable. Yes, life will bring us to our knees. And, yes, this much-criticized film will get you in the heart, but not through the manipulation it is being criticized for, but through its narrative insight that shows us how, despite all that brings us down, a story can get us to see that we must get up off our knees.
Jan 23rd 2018

The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government

Nov 27th 2017
Casablanca, which brought together the combined star-power of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, remains one of the best-loved movies ever produced in Hollywood. But the film, which hit the silver screen on November 26 1942, is more than just a love story set in Morocco.
Oct 30th 2017

The 53rd Chicago International Film festival ran 150 films from October 12-27, 2017. Directors, screenplay writers and actors attended many of the films from fifty countries.

Oct 30th 2017
The cinematic experience continues to be dominated by digitally led projects and audiences who increasingly expect more and more technical innovation. So it is refreshing when a mainstream cinema release consciously chooses to place traditional, artist-led techniques at its very heart.
Jun 8th 2017

Sofia Coppola’s triumphant win at Cannes as best director for The Beguiled is the latest in a series of notable successes for a director quietly but forcefully blazing her own tr

Feb 24th 2017

Having won five BAFTAs, including coveted awards for Best Film, Best Director (Damien Chazelle) and Best Actress (Emma Stone), La La Land is likely to

Jan 7th 2017

The blogosphere has been awash this month with reviews of Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Silence.