If you haven’t seen “The Post” yet, what are you waiting for? Go see the Academy Award-nominated film before it disappears from area movie theaters. In fact, go see it before newspapers disappear from the American landscape altogether.
Directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie takes us back to the era of the Pentagon Papers, those secret files that finally revealed the whole miserable history of government lying, miscalculation and hubris that took America ever deeper into Vietnam while the national death count mounted by the tens of thousands.
First, it was the New York Times revealing the war’s hidden details and then, when a federal court ordered the Times to cease publishing, it was the Washington Post picking up the story.
But maybe the most stirring moment of the movie – among many moments filled with throat-catching emotion – was the Post publisher, Katharine Graham (portrayed by Meryl Streep), and her top editors struggling to make a decision when they, too, were ordered to stop publishing – only to find, to their great relief, that newspapers all around the country had suddenly taken up the good fight.
For those of us who have mournfully watched the decay of newspapers over the past decade or more, the movie’s a reminder of loftier, headier times. But it also prompts a warning: in an era when the courts have gotten increasingly politicized, and we have a president consistently demeaning reporters and calling them “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news,” who would be left to tell important, legally controversial stories today?
The New York Times and Washington Post have given us some brilliant reporting during the first year of the Trump administration. But their efforts have also pointed out the ever-increasing distance between those two papers and the remainder of American print journalism.
Baltimore’s a prime example. Once, we had three daily newspapers here, and now we’re down to one. Once, that newspaper, the Sun, had bureaus all over the globe. Now, they don’t even have one in Baltimore County.
Meanwhile, the paper’s newsroom has steadily shrunk to a small fraction of its former self, and its venerable Calvert Street building has been sold and its remaining staff told they’ll be moving all operations this summer to South Baltimore’s Port Covington.
For all the gritty efforts of their remaining editorial staff – and it’s clear they’ve still got some dedicated, ferociously hard-working pros doing their best – the paper’s dwindling numbers work against them. They simply don’t have enough people to do the kind of work they once did.
And it’s this way with newspapers around the country now. For their news and information, Americans rely more and more on social media, websites and mobile devices, most of which deal in opinion pieces written by a relative handful of freelancers. What do they base their opinions on? In large measure, on original reporting they read in a literal handful of first-rate newspapers.
But editors around the country don’t have the manpower they once had, and publishers with an eye on the bottom line grow increasingly nervous about offending readers and advertisers.
And all of this leaves us wondering about a modern Pentagon Papers-type confrontation: if the courts once again attempted to silence the Times and the Post, who would be left to back them up this time around?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been re-issued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.