‘Stop watching the news” is the savvy advice Morrissey sings on his politically oriented, recently released album. He then explains: “Because the news contrives to frighten you / To make you feel small and alone / To make you feel that your mind isn’t your own.” This provocative assessment of contemporary journalism felt positively restorative after watching the deceitful glorification of “the news” in Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
Morrissey’s complaint cuts through to the truth about modern journalism — as Spielberg does not — by exposing how what we consider “the news” has become the illusory practice of a primarily Left-centered, conspiratorial institution that operates to manipulate a susceptible public. In other words, Morrissey knows that journalism has become corrupt, whereas Spielberg’s movie normalizes that corruption. The Post is a fawning account of Washington Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) crying “Me, too” when the New York Times scoops them with the precedent-setting publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Spielberg looks to that turning-point event because the past is the source from which today’s leftist sanctimony — and particularly the media’s maddening “resistance” posture — claims its validity. All of today’s social-justice movements — Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, the transgender-equality brigades — derive their sentimental impetus from the memories of halcyon protest and counterculture dissent that transformed America.
The Post is a snootily white-collar movie faking common-man virtues. Spielberg directs it as an addendum to All the President’s Men (1976), the most narcissistic of all newspaper films. Not only did it alter popular consciousness about the media — fabricating a holy war, between journalism and government, that ceased only for deference toward the Obama administration — but it had an overall destructive effect on American civic ambition. That film’s false modesty (enacted by former culture heroes Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) romanticized the hubris, of taking down a presidency, that infected subsequent generations of communications students and ambitious reporters. Through that film’s convoluted, pretend-mystery plot, journalism wannabes regarded their own political partisanship as qualifications for the job; white-knight vanity replaced the self-effacing detective work of the old-time crime beat. Ever since that tedious movie, the news media have magnified their own mythology and sense of power.
Now, using his own dark-tinted “realism” (as in Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), Spielberg counters the lavishness — of the dichotomy between justice and corruption, and of the contrast between the glowing and the chiaroscuro — that cinematographer Gordon Willis gave to All the President’s Men. Black-and-white photography might have implied documentary investigation, but media mogul Spielberg wants dramatic persuasion; he, too, has fallen for the media’s sanctimony and so makes a 21st-century version of John Ford’s maxim on history: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Yet, The Post is irony-free.
The legend offered here is motivated by the resolve of the national media industry to countermand the 2016 election, first by going back to establish the Washington Post’s bona fides when it followed the New York Times’ publication of the Pentagon Papers. This is where Spielberg and screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer automatically accept that publishing the Defense Department’s classified government documents was a journalistic prerogative. To question that decision is now considered anathema. The Post validates the slippery slope that brought us to today’s shameless media partisanship.
Daniel Ellsberg, the Rand Corporation wonk who appropriated the documents and released them to the Times, is portrayed (by Matthew Rhys) as a minor character whose trendy anti-establishment crime (47 classified volumes sneaked out over two months) is merely the film’s pretext….