Thursday, January 11, 2018

Director Steven Spielberg has admitted that he rushed the production of “The Post” in order to release it as early as possible in President Trump’s tenure, given the commander-in-chief’s aggressive attacks on the press.

But is this cinematic retelling of The Washington Post’s 1971 decision to publish The Pentagon Papers the movie we need now more than ever?

W. Joseph Campbell, a communication professor at American University, questions the timing of the film’s release, noting that the Obama administration’s actions against the press were more punitive than Mr. Trump’s anti-media rants.

“Some of the efforts [the Obama administration] took to challenge press freedom were jaw dropping,” Mr. Campbell said, citing the seizure of Associated Press reporters’ phone records as one example. “If that happened today, the furor would be intense. They’d be calling for [Mr. Trump’s] impeachment on that count.”

By comparison, Mr. Trump’s press attacks “have been rhetorical. He hasn’t sought the phone records of a news service,” he added.

“The Post” opens to wide release Friday amid a tumultuous first year of the Trump administration characterized by intense media scrutiny, actual and alleged “fake news,” and glaring reporting errors published or aired by The Washington Post itself, CNN, ABC News and others. Indeed, Mr. Spielberg has hoped the film reflects an energized news media in the Trump era.

Mr. Campbell applauds any reporter keeping politicians honest but worries that the flood of gaffes is having an impact on how consumers view news products.

“The press really does have some soul-searching to do,” he said.

Lindsay Graham, host of the popular “American History Tellers” podcast, isn’t sure how or if the public will embrace “The Post.”

“I don’t know if the movie was made for the moment, or the moment was made for the movie,” Mr. Graham said. “There’s a message this movie speaks to … courage in the newspaper business, that’s something a lot of people want to hear.”

The fact that The Washington Post changed its slogan early in Mr. Trump’s first year to “Democracy Dies in Darkness” suggests the newspaper wants to address a slipping sense of trust in major media outlets.

Mr. Graham is aghast whenever a news outlet gets a story wrong, but he’s not convinced that what we’ve seen over the past 12 months is truly “fake news.”

“The one thing everyone has to understand about ‘fake news’ is that it’s propaganda, it’s done with a purpose,” Mr. Graham said. “I don’t think the intent has been proven.”

In “The Post,” President Richard M. Nixon (Curzon Dobell) is never shown in close up, only in the shadows ­— a small character in a much larger story, visually speaking. Nixon’s influence on the narrative looms large, though.

Mr. Graham said the Nixon/Trump comparisons stirred by some — like the film’s star Tom Hanks, who portrays editor Ben Bradlee — are “inevitable.”

Nixon is “made a caricature of the evil White House,” he added.

But Mr. Graham isn’t sure that audiences necessarily will make the connection: “Trump probably has some Nixonian impulses in his desire to control the narrative, but I don’t know any president that wouldn’t.”

Nixon’s presidency ended in the fallout from Watergate, and some press outlets are suggesting a similar fate for Mr. Trump in the criminal and congressional investigations of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. None of those probes has yet to confirm publicly any such coordination.

Larry O’Connor, veteran media critic and host at WMAL AM Radio in Washington, said Mr. Spielberg’s rush to share “The Post” with audiences could do the finished product a disservice.

“Whenever any artist puts a message or political cause … over sheer entertainment and storytelling, they’ve always got a problem,” Mr. O’Connor said.

No matter the quality of “The Post,” that image could hurt the film’s ticket sales.

“There’s obviously an audience for hyperpartisan content,” Mr. O’Connor said. “It’s much more appealing in the non-fiction realm. When people go to the movies they go for an escape … that’s been true since the Depression.”

Mr. Hanks surprised many when he wished Mr. Trump well shortly after becoming president-elect, adding he hopes the president is so successful he earns his vote in 2020.

That was then. More recently, Mr. Hanks said he wouldn’t show up to the White House if Mr. Trump invited him to personally screen “The Post.”

“I know a lot of conservatives who used to love Tom Hanks … they loved the ‘Band of Brothers’ Tom Hanks,” Mr. O’Connor said. “I don’t think they’re going to love the ‘Never Trump’ Tom Hanks.”

An April 2017 poll showed the public trusts the Trump White House more than the media. That matters when a movie like “The Post” hopes to play on the public’s affection for the Fourth Estate.

Add the fact that modern media aggressively courts online “clicks,” sometimes to the detriment of hard news value, suggests the public isn’t clamoring for a film honoring the press, Mr. O’Connor said.

“It’s pretty telling that in order to bolster the image of the press and make the media more romanticized they’ve got to go back 40 years to find their story,” he said.

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