In July of last year, Kim Masters wrote at The Hollywood Reporter about allegations Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carton had killed at least one major story about the late Jeffrey Epstein and his sex-trafficking activities involving young girls. Specifically, Masters uses another journalists recounting of Carter’s interference to share her own experiences at that magazine where stories were shut down because they involved friends of the publisher.
The kinds of anecdotes shared by Masters and others are all of a kind: The rich and powerful editors, publishers and owners of media outlets take an active role in shaping the coverage they oversee to protect other rich and powerful people. Everyone in this circle gets together at the Met Gala, exclusive parties and other events and, having become friendly, make sure their friends are subjected to any embarrassment.
Masters’ piece came to mind while watching The Post recently. The movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, focuses on a period in the early 1970s when The Washington Post was working to report on The Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents showing the government had been lying about the Vietnam War and the general area for decades.
Early on in the film, publisher Katherine Graham (Meryll Streep) is approached at a dinner party by her close friend – and White House Secretary of Defense – Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). McNamara wants her to know The New York Times is about to report on those documents and the story will be embarrassing to him and others.
Throughout the story we see Graham hobnobbing with the rich and powerful of Washington, D.C. elite, including others who work in and around the Nixon administration. It’s clear that the work being done by both newspapers is disrupting the operations of those individuals. At the very least it’s embarrassing.
Graham, of course, isn’t the only one who has made friends with those in power. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) admits toward the end that there were instances where newsworthy comments were made or incidents witnessed by him involving, among others, Pres. John F. Kennedy that he ignored or passed by in the name of maintaining the relationship.
Such a situation is all too common in the media world, where executives in charge of reporting the news attend the same social events as those making the news. It’s not limited to executives, either, as high-profile columnists are in the same boat.
When that happens, the public suffers. We’re seeing that in the Epstein and other cases as it comes to light that powerful people knew the truth of what he’d been accused and convicted of and didn’t make a stink because he provided access to others. The premise of the film is that if Graham and Bradlee hadn’t put their own personal relationships aside and held their duty as journalists in higher regard, we may not have learned important information about drastic abuses of power.
It raises the question of what is happening now that could be important to know. What is David Brooks not putting in print because he doesn’t want to upset someone he considers a friend? What decisions are newspaper editors installed by private equity owners making that are limiting the flow of relevant information to the general public?
More and more of the country loses their sole local news source every year. These news deserts are growing at the same time media consolidation is making local news more homogenous in tone and content. That all means fewer and fewer people are making the decisions as to what is or isn’t news and how the events of the day are presented to the public.
That’s a disturbing reality, especially when coupled with how Facebook and other social platforms, which account for so much of people’s modern news consumption, have utterly abdicated anything that could reasonably be referred to as “editorial oversight.”
When The Post was released, this aspect of the story wasn’t present in much of the coverage or reviews, at least not those that crossed my reading. The focus was on the more general theme of how important it is for a free and independent press to operate as a check on abuses of power. What wasn’t made clear in that coverage, though, was that the kind of friendships shown between the characters is a serious impediment to that journalistic mission, as much as the climactic Supreme Court case in the story.
While that showdown is suitably dramatic, it’s the more mundane conflicts that form the real message of the movie.