WASHINGTON — I understand perfectly well why presidents aren’t fond of journalists. We’re seated on opposite sides of the table, and our work involves revealing things that people in power might want to hide. Additionally, our mission as journalists is to ensure that they do not abuse this power.
But tell that to President Donald Trump.
The president just doesn’t understand that our duty is to question him. We’re not here to applaud him, offer praise or boost his self-esteem. And when he lies — according to The Washington Post he told 1,628 lies or misleading claims in his first 298 days in office — our duty is to report it.
But when reporters accuse Trump of creating his own truth, he accuses independent journalists of publishing fake news. All of this, of course, will not end well. This is not a new phenomenon.
I’ve just seen “The Post,” a film about the heroic efforts of a group of journalists at The Washington Post, who revealed to the American public that four presidents had lied to them about the Vietnam War — lies that cost American soldiers their lives. For years, the official message about Vietnam had been that America was winning. The reality on the ground and in Washington was completely different.
In one scene, the script has Robert McNamara, who had been secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, declare: “The papers can’t be objective.” It was like listening to a current Trump rant against the news media for accurately reporting on his contradictions and half-truths.
“The Post” is a movie that is particularly relevant today. Director Steven Spielberg told me that when he read the screenplay he had been working on another film, but felt he had to make it immediately. And while it’s inevitable that former President Richard Nixon’s attacks on the press in the film will be compared with the way Trump now maligns the mainstream media, Spielberg managed to avoid mentioning the name of the current president of the United States during our discussion.
The movie, he told me, deals with many topics — including feminism, represented by the late Katharine Graham, the longtime owner of The Washington Post, majestically portrayed by Meryl Streep — and he did not want biased headlines to distract attention from that.
So, no, “The Post” is not a movie about Trump. And yet one can’t avoid thinking of what we are going through today as we watch officials in the Nixon administration try to silence and restrict the access of the free press. Spielberg understands journalists very well.
Streep and Tom Hanks, who plays Ben Bradlee, the rebel editor of The Washington Post, will be responsible, I believe, for a spike in applications to journalism schools.
I spoke with Streep and Hanks about the movie, and they also wanted to talk about the role of journalism going forward.
Streep triggered Trump’s rage almost a year ago when she criticized him at the Golden Globe Awards for mocking a reporter with a disability. In response, Trump attacked her with a biting tweet. But she hasn’t stopped defending journalists. “Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you: the fourth estate, our first line of defense against tyranny,” Streep said in a recent speech.
Hanks mentioned that a few months back he sent a new coffee machine to the journalists covering the White House. He attached a note saying, “Keep up the good fight for truth, justice and the American Way. Especially the truth part.” I’m pretty sure the coffee must have tasted much better that day to the White House press corps.
Fiction can sometimes bring us very close to the truth. “The Post” is based on the controversial publication of the so-called Pentagon Papers, amid frantic efforts by the government to prevent the documents from being seen by the public. But the most important thing about the film is the way it illustrates the fierce tension that must always exist between people in power and journalists.
I left the theater holding my head high, and ready for what’s next.