Sunday, January 14, 2018

Good Reason The New Pentagon Papers Movie Was About “The Post,” NOT The New York Times (Drama About Whether Major News Organizations Will Publish Suppressed Stories)

Ironies?- "The Post" is casting about for Academy Awards for its portrayal of the Washington Post's publishing of The Pentagon Papers, when it was the New York Times that won a Pulitzer Prize for being first to publish those documents (upper left).  Meanwhile, the New York Times won a more recent Pulitzer Prize for a story it sought to suppress written by its reporters James Risen (upper right) and Eric Lichtblau.  That story eventually evolved into the Snowden leaks generating a documentary that won an Academy Award  (lower left).  Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (lower right) won a Pulitzer Prize for telling her version of her life story (after suppressing another).
Will major media organizations cooperate when the powerful don’t want unflattering news to be published, likely making the argument that it won’t be good for the country?  The latest iteration on this theme manifesting in unfolding events today is Trump’s efforts to keep Michael Wolf’s “Fire and Furyout of the bookstores.  The question is one that keeps coming back to present itself over and over.  The close relative to that question is whether news media will willingly slant what it reports.

The other day I went out on impulse without reading any of the reviews to see “The Post,” the new movie out now about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  I had just mentioned it in an article.  It was a considerably better film than I might have guessed.  Had I known how good it was I would have strived to see it even sooner.

There’s been a fair amount of chatter about why the film took as its topic The Washington Post, when it was the New York Times that published the Pentagon Papers first, with the Washington Post following next.  Seeing the film, there are some perfectly obvious reasons for choosing to have the film focus on the Post.  The film’s final scene, taking place June 17, 1972 in the Watergate hotel, proclaims Spielberg’s new film as essentially a prequel to another great film about journalism and also about the Washington Post, “All the President’s Men.”  That film came out in 1976.

The Post” is sort of like a super-hero origin movie following much the same formula used in that genre: Katherine Graham, the Washington Post’s publisher in 1971, played by Meryl Streep, finds her super-hero muscles and rises to the occasion saving the day.  The only failure of continuity is that although Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee carries over as a major character to the previously filmed “All the President’s Men” saga, Katherine Graham makes no appearance in that 1976 film at all.

In fact, in putting Graham front and center, “The Post” is very much of its time today in tackling the subject of women: Like the Oscar-contending “Wonder Woman” this year, it is also about how women, previously overlooked in a “man’s” world, can be just as strong or stronger than those who have dominated it.  Steven Spielberg fast-trackedThe Post” to be filmed in the spring of this past year.  Although it didn’t actually get into production until after Trump’s ensconcement in the presidency (with all its associated pussy-grabbing frills), the rights were bought in the fall of 2016, so it is interesting to think that when Liz Hannah and Josh Singer were hoping their script would sell they must have expected Hillary Clinton, a strong D.C. woman, would assume occupancy of the D.C. White House.

There is, however, probably at least one more reason it could be beneficial for the film to have focused on the Washington Post, rather than the New York Times.  It has something to do with reporting that Carl Bernstein did after Watergate.  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate reporting fame, portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men,” each went on to respective sequels in their careers.

In October of 1977 (a good five years after the beginning of Watergate and somewhat more than a year after the release of “All the Presidents’ Men”), Carl Bernstein published a comprehensive article in Rolling Stone about the relationship of the CIA and journalists.  That included how the CIA concentrated “its relationships with journalists in the most prominent sectors of the American press corps, including four or five of the largest newspapers in the country, the broadcast networks and the two major newsweekly magazines.”  (See: THE CIA AND THE MEDIA- How Americas Most Powerful News Media Worked Hand in Glove with the Central Intelligence Agency and Why the Church Committee Covered It Up, by Carl Bernstein, October 20, 1977.)

One of Bernstein’s revelations was that New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger signed a secrecy agreement with the CIA in the 1950s.  His son, Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger Sr., the publisher of the New York Times (from 1963–1997) when it published The Pentagon Papers is played by Gary Wilmes in “The Post.”

Another of Bernstein’s revelations was that from “1950 to 1966, about ten CIA employees were provided Times cover under arrangements approved by” Arthur Hays Sulzberger as publisher, “part of a general Times policy—set by Sulzberger—to provide assistance to the CIA whenever possible.”  That obviously includes years covered by the Pentagon Papers.  Still another of Bernstein’s revelations was that Times columnist C.L. “Cy” Sulzberger, the nephew of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, and the paper’s chief of foreign service from 1944 to 1954, also apparently signed a secrecy agreement with the CIA and at the time of Bernstein’s article was “still regarded as an active asset by the Agency.”  Cy Sulzberger furnished Bernstein some specific denials that require parsing to figure how much he admits or denies he might have done for the secrecy agency.

While Bernstein’s article is filled with lots of well-documented specifics, it is also clear that a lot is left open about what he can conclude for certain, including to what extent the CIA withdrew from such activities by the time of the 1976 Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the CIA chaired by Senator Frank Church.  There are questions about how deeply the committee pursued investigation of these matters along with questions about how much information the CIA supplied and with what intended slant.  According to Bernstein the “CIA’s intransigence led to an extraordinary dinner meeting at Agency headquarters in late March 1976" that included Senators Frank Church and John Tower, the vice chairman of the committee, CIA director George Herbert Walker Bush and various identified high-level CIA officials at which “the Agency held to its refusal to provide any full files” and refused to give the committee the names of any individual journalists or of the news organizations with whom they were affiliated.

According to Bernstein’s article, “the CIA’s use of journalists continued virtually unabated until 1973 when, in response to public disclosure that the Agency had secretly employed American reporters, William Colby began scaling down the program.”  The Times and the Post started publication of the Pentagon Papers in June of 1971.

As for such "scaling down," Bernstein wrote:
In November 1973, after many such shifts had been made, Colby told reporters and editors from the New York Times and the Washington Star that the Agency had “some three dozen” American newsmen “on the CIA payroll,” including five who worked for “general circulation news organizations.” Yet even while the Senate Intelligence Committee was holding its hearings in 1976, according to high level CIA sources, the CIA continued to maintain ties with seventy five to ninety journalists of every description—executives, reporters, stringers, photographers, columnists, bureau clerks and members of broadcast technical crews. . . . According to an unpublished report by the House Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Representative Otis Pike, at least fifteen news organizations were still providing cover for CIA operatives as of 1976.
According to Bernstein, Colby “ordered his deputies to maintain Agency ties with its best journalist contacts while severing formal relationships with many regarded as inactive, relatively unproductive or only marginally important.”

The CIA’s connections with the Pentagon Papers is complicated to say the least.  The Pentagon Papers were in part about things the CIA itself had done.  Then there were the Watergate burglars, who, among other things, broke into office of the psychiatrist for Daniel Ellsberg (who worked for the RAND Corporation) as part of an effort to discredit Ellsberg: One of them E. Howard Hunt has always been cited as an ex-CIA agent, another, Eugenio R. Martinez, according to information recently obtained by a conservative group and furnished as “an exclusive” to Fox News, was a CIA agent at the time.  Further, the CIA was furnishing assistance to Hunt and then after the arrest of the burglars lied to the FBI while engaging in efforts to deflect the FBI from investigating it.

That is a lot in the background to sort through if you are going to make a film about the Times publishing the Pentagon Papers.  Not to say that these kinds of things usually get pushed to the fore in films produced for the American public, but I am sure that the people who write films like these are somewhat in the know about such background and take it into account.  (I read that producer Amy Pascal's father was an economic researcher at the RAND Corporation, apparently at the same time as Daniel Ellsberg.  Script writer/producer Josh Singer wrote West Wings and another recent journalism film, "Spotlight.")  It is perhaps simpler to make the film from the vantage of what happened at the Washington Post.

The Times absolutely does make its appearances as sort of its own character in “The Post.”   In fact, in July the Times ran an article about how a New York City Landmark, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in mid-Manhattan, was gussied up to serve in the film as a stand-in for the former Times Building at 229 West 43rd Street with an approximation of its style.  Mostly, the film presents what is going on at the Times as something of mystery, the leaked papers are being labored over off-site at a hotel suite with great secrecy.  Exactly, who is keeping what secret from whom and why is not fully explicated.  The film, looking in from the outside, never has to get into the questions of internal Times dynamics of who could be trusted.  (When the Washington Post undertakes its own work on the papers it parallels setting up its own off-site location for the work.) 

While making a film about The Washington Post instead of the Times could perhaps make questions about the CIA’s presence in the journalism world easier, it doesn’t actually make them go away.  Carl Bernstein’s article describes how multiple major news organizations were entangled with the CIA: CBS News* was a big one.   He explained that at the time of the 1976 Senate bearings, CIA officials “refused to say whether the CIA was still maintaining active relationships with members of the ABC News organization” with the cover arrangements “made with the knowledge of ABC executives.”
(* NOTE: Movies about CBS News journalism include “Good Night, and Good Luck,”  “The Insider” and  “Truth.” “The Insider” is similar to “The Post” in the way that corporate profit comes into play, something that The Intercept's film review hones in on instead of other aspects you might expect.  “Truth” tells about how CBS having corporate needs to ingratiate itself with the Bush White House dismantled one of its star news teams.)
Among those major media organizations also mentioned were Time magazine (I have written about Time magazine twice recently concerning the implications of the Koch brothers acquisition of ownership) and Newsweek magazine.

As for the Washington Post for which Bernstein famously worked reporting on the Watergate scandal, Bernstein writes:
Information about Agency dealings with the Washington Post newspaper is extremely sketchy. According to CIA officials, some Post stringers have been CIA employees, but these officials say they do not know if anyone in the Post management was aware of the arrangements.
Bernstein also writes that when “Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company, publisher Philip L. Graham [Katherine Graham’s husband] was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according to CIA sources,” and that a former deputy director of the CIA said that, “It was widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help from.”

There is another way this story can be told.  That version of the story is that sale of Newsweek to the Washington Post was more or less brokered by Richard Helms, the future head of the CIA and Ben Bradlee who was then at Newsweek (after an earlier stint at the Post), so as to ensure that the CIA's Newsweek activity could be perpetuated with the Washington Post becoming part of it.  Newsweek was owned by Helms grandfather.

Was Bernstein too reticent concerning what he said about his former employers?  The version of events involving Bradlee and Helms was in "Katherine The Great: Katherine Graham and the Washington Post," an unflattering biography of Graham by Deborah Davis, the first edition of which Graham sued to get removed from the bookstores.  That first edition was published in 1979, two years after Bernstein's article.  Katherine Graham later got to tell things her own way publishing her autobiography to get another of those Pulitzer Prizes.

Bernstein goes on to report that Frank Wisner, deputy director of the CIA from 1950 dealt with Phil Graham until not very long before Wisner’s shotgun suicide October 29, 1965. He explains that Wisner was “the Agency's premier orchestrator of `black’ operations, including many in which journalists were involved.”

“The Post” carefully makes part of its explication the fact that Katherine Graham assumed responsibility for the paper after her husband Phil Graham’s own shotgun suicide, August 3, 1963 (shortly after he reportedly engaged in an odd public disclosure about JFK’s CIA/Wisner-connected mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, sister-in-law to Ben Bradlee*, who was murdered by gun October 12, 1964).
(*  NOTE:  There is a tantalizing story here about Mary Pinchot Meyer's diary after she died if someone wants to make yet one more film, a pre-Pentagon Papers film, in which Ben Bradlee would have an important part.  It's not clear it would be a film mostly about journalism.  It is not at all clear to what genre such a film would best adapt.  There is a “documentary” just about Bradlee that fails in this regard- HBO’s recent “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee,” basically the audio-book version of Bradlee’s autobiography with pictures, that is truncated and elides the diary episode to a much greater degree than the original book.)
About Katherine Graham and CIA connections to the Post under her reign Bernstein has this to say:
Katharine Graham, Philip Graham’s widow and the current publisher of the Post, says she has never been informed of any CIA relationships with either Post or Newsweek personnel. In November of 1973, Mrs. Graham called William Colby and asked if any Post stringers or staff members were associated with the CIA. Colby assured her that no staff members were employed by the Agency but refused to discuss the question of stringers. 
One of the themes of “The Post” is about how personal relationships between the powerful, press owners included, influences the reporting of and possible suppression of the news.  A delightfully revelatory line in “The Post,” delivered as almost a throwaway, is when the Katherine Graham character talking with the Robert McNamara character, Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who does not want the Pentagon Papers he commissioned to see the light of day.  She acknowledges her respectful thanks to McNamara for picking “every member” of her board.  There are many wistful shots of photographs of the senior newspeople with the Kennedys and the movie conveys that because JFK’s assassination was such a personal loss for them their professional duties likely got sidestepped in the past.

In a plot-simplifying zeal for a bipartisan pox on everybody's house, the film throws under the bus any mention of President Kennedy's moves in the direction of winding down the Vietnam War, something not focused on when the Pentagon papers were published even though they contained an entire 60 page chapter concerning the Kennedy/McNamara plans abandoned by Johnson.

Personal relationships affecting journalism is a theme of Bernstein’s article too.  He speaks of how Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger “was especially close to Allen Dulles,” the first civilian Director of Central Intelligence, and its longest-serving director to date, quoting a high-level CIA official as saying,  “At that level of contact it was the mighty talking to the mighty.”  Bernstein asserts CIA recruitment of prestigious journalists began under Dulles and that “contacts with the heads of news organizations were normally initiated by Dulles” or others very high up in the CIA.  Working with the heads of news organizations was helpful because as senators were told by one of the heads of the Senate committee investigation who was explaining the “incredible spread of relationships”: “You don’t need to manipulate Time magazine, for example, because there are Agency people at the management level.”

The CIA didn’t have to engage in formal hiring of journalists if journalists thought the same way and simply considered themselves part of the same team America.  In this regard Bernstein explains that many of the journalists “had gone to the same schools as their CIA handlers, moved in the same circles, shared fashionably liberal, anti Communist political values, and were part of the same `old boy' network that constituted something of an establishment elite in the media, politics and academia of postwar America.” (Full disclosure: Katherine Graham was a classmate of my Aunt Nancy- also in publishing- at The Madeira School, and yes, I do believe that such school relationships can count for a lot.)

There are other backdrops against which any telling of the story of publication of the Pentagon Papers can be put. 

Media critic Edward S. Herman, coauthor with Noam Chomsky of “Manufacturing Consent,” recently died.  Before he did, he wrote a last article highly critical of misleading reporting by the New York Times, which ran in the July/August 2017 edition of Monthly Review: Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies- The New York Times, 1917-2017.  The article covers Times  misrepresentation about communism and about Russia as a threatening communist state.  Vietnam was obviously fought as a war against communism.  In one section Herman’s article criticizes the Times misleading reporting about the Vietnam War by the Times, that, in Herman’s view, was not solved even if the Times grew “steadily more oppositional” to the war “from 1965, culminating in the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.”

It's easier to end by triumphantly saying `and then the Washington Post took on Richard Nixon’s Watergate abuses,’ than to put Pentagon Papers publication heroism against the backdrop of other recent New York Times activity. . .

. .   There is a new tale now out about one of the Times decisions of this nature.  The Times (with some attendant suspense) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for publication of the Pentagon Papers.  The tale of what happened more recently involves a Pulitzer Prize opportunity the Times nearly shirked.  In 2004 in the months running up to the Bush/Kerry presidential election, the Times was cooperating with the George W. Bush administration to suppress what was ultimately a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by its reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau about the administration’s secret illegal and unconstitutional surveillance of the American public.  The bigger, wider version of this story was later made public by the Edward Snowden leaks.  That ultimately became the basis for the last two important films about truth-to-power adventures in adversarial journalism ethics: The academy award winning documentary “Citizenfour” and the parallel Oliver Stone directed drama“Snowden.”

The Times suppression of the story could be the basis for a film itself.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning story was published by the New York Times only because one of its reporters, Risen, was about to publish a book including the information the Times was withholding from the public.  According to Risen, New York Times senior editors, in suppressive mode right up until the end, expressed anger about Risen’s book being published together with their view that Risen didn’t have the right to publish it.  Unfortunately, as a matter of timing, Times suppression of the story caused it to be run after its publication could have had likely consequence in the 2004 Bush/Kerry election.

Preparing to write this article I compiled a list of films about actual American journalism events.  I chronologized it by the dates that the dramas respecting their reporting took place:  A Timeline of Reporting Dramas: Movies About Journalistic Coverage of Real Public Issues and Events, January 7, 2018.

Reviewing the list it is interesting to note how there are long gaps in the history with which the cinema going public has been furnished where there are no tales of journalistic heroism, almost as if nothing was happening in this country at those times although that is hardly the case.  Does that just mean that no one was speaking truth to power then?

Looking at those gaps, there are doubtless some great films to be made.  Not all films about journalism are about journalism’s successes.  “Shattered Glass” is about manufactured news going undetected and “Truth” was about Dan Rather and his CBS 60 Minutes Peabody Award-winning news team being tripped up by somebody mysteriously in the shadows supplying sophisticatedly fake documents in connection with their reporting of a basically true story about preferential treatment of George W. Bush in the National Guard (1968 to 1973 during which time Bush did not show up for a medical exam and stopped fulfilling his flying commitments).   “The Insider” concerning a tobacco industry whistle-blower and once again concerning the CBS 60 Minutes news show shares some themes with “The Post”: Its villains would also sacrifice journalistic integrity and a duty to the public for the benefit of profit-motivated business interests.

As these dramas can also be about failures of journalistic responsibility, there is no reason that an excellent future film can’t be made about Judith Miller and addressing how the New York Times had to eventually repudiate her reporting that it published about weapons of mass destruction.  That reporting contributed to the run up to the second Iraq war.  The Washington Post editorial board also admitted that it had been “insufficiently skeptical of intelligence reports” in its pro-war editorials.

There are also those who, telling this story, say that the Washington Post was far more involved with the Deep State than Carl Bernstein reported in 1977, and thus maybe even more involved than the Times.  Additionally, as vaguely alluded to in "The Post" there are accounts that Daniel Ellsberg was fishing around to offer the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post first through editorial page editor Phil Geyelin (if not actually giving documents to him) and was rejected by the heroes of "The Post" before he approached Neil Sheehan and the Times.

No matter, all things considered, it seems there were plenty of good reasons a film being made today about publication of the Pentagon Papers to focus on the Washington Post, not the New York Times.  Just one of those good reasons is that it leaves people chattering about which paper the film should have been about rather than more troublesome issues.  A fight about bragging rights maintains the supposition that everything there is worthy of being bragged about.

At one point "The Post" incorporates a quote that Phil Graham famously adopted as his own: that journalism provides us with the "first rough draft of history."   He went on to say it would never be completed and was "about a world we can never really understand."   What does it mean that docudramas furnishing far from perfect facsimiles of the truth, are now the draft through which so many of us understand the narrative of our history (and the way journalists dished it up for us)?

Tom Hanks, revered in this time of sex scandals and "Times-Up" Golden Globe ceremonies, as the last decent man in the world, is not the "real-life" Ben Bradlee.  "Deep Throat" was not really Hal Holbrook.  Do we think we now know enough about who "Deep Throat" actually was to do a reboot of one of the greatest classics of American cinema, "All The President's Men"?  What we think we know would probably have to change the story-line appreciably.  But there is still some disagreement about who we think we know "Deep Throat" was, and I'm sure there'd also be disagreement about launching a reboot.

As for future sequels, whether it's the fictional depictions or the real life accounts, the powerful in the powerful city that D.C. is have always hovered around the Washington Post and its owners hoping to extend their power.  In the tradition of other cinemactic heroes, the Washington Post was held up for us to be able to admire that power in these films. . .  and we were encouraged to root for it.

The Washington Post was bought in 2013.  It is now owned by somebody who was already powerful,  one of the richest eight men on earth who combined own as much wealth as half the human race, Amazon owner, Jeff Bezos.  To complete the circle of our concerns, Bezos is doing at work for the CIA reportedly providing the CIA with cloud computing services pursuant to a $600 million contract ("Think of it as the intelligence community sharing information behind a walled castle apart from the rest of the world operating on the Internet").  Amazon and Bezos could provide a lot more.  Up there in that cloud it knows a lot about an awful lot of us.
(PS:  For a more detailed, methodical and informed analysis of fact verses fiction in “The Post,” plus some very valid insightful comment on its acting and film craft you will probably want to read the Consortium News review- ‘The Post’ and the Pentagon Papers, January 22, 2018.)

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