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The Post: Taking a Stand Amid Fake News

WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin

2/14/2018
— Melissa Waggener Zorkin 

Have you seen “The Post” yet? It’s the story of how the Washington Post newspaper came to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. (No need for a spoiler alert here, since you already know how it all turned out.) More than that, it’s a love story, a love story about stories, and watching it made me so proud to be in the business we’re in.

The hero of the movie—and one of my personal heroes, too—is Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. When the movie opens, she’s been running the newspaper alone for almost 10 years, since her husband Phil’s death in 1963. (Her father, the paper’s owner, had passed it on to Phil some years before. “It never crossed my mind,” Kay later wrote, “that [my father] might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.”) The Post is in financial trouble: quality journalism, Kay reminds us, is expensive, and her paper is competing for readers with corporate-owned newspaper chains, wire services, and TV stations. As a result, she’s taking the company public—but unbeknownst to her, she’s doing it at a most inopportune time.

The stock offering was set for June 15, 1971. Two days before, the New York Times had begun to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret report on American involvement in Vietnam that researcher Daniel Ellsberg had smuggled, volume by volume, out of the RAND Corporation’s filing cabinets and into the hands of Times reporter Neil Sheehan. On the 15th, President Nixon’s attorney general sued the Times, on the grounds that publishing the classified documents was a violation of the Espionage Act. A federal judge agreed.

Finding the Opportunity

 

Post editor Ben Bradlee saw an opportunity: if his reporters could find Ellsberg and get copies of the documents, they could pick up where the Times left off. But if they did, and the Times lost its appeal to the Supreme Court, the paper’s IPO would almost certainly implode; what’s more, Bradlee could be sent to prison. So could Katharine. The choice was hers—what would it be?

As I’ve said, there are no spoilers here. We all know that Kay chose to publish, that the Times and the Post won their case before the Supreme Court, and that the publication of the Pentagon Papers ultimately helped to end the war in Vietnam. What I loved about “The Post,” though, was how beautifully it communicated the enormous, terrifying weight of Kay’s decision—and how alone she must have felt as she made it.

(Kay wasn’t entirely alone, of course. I remember meeting the Post’s editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield—a Seattle native!—several times in the early days of our work with Microsoft. She worked in such a male dominated world—in the movie, she’s really the only woman other than Kay who had any say at the paper. Of course, she was an incredible writer—she won the Pulitzer for editorial writing in 1978—but what I remember most about Meg is how she was able to have such powerful convictions, enacted in a graceful way so that she could pave the way for others to have powerful convictions and to act on them. She was hardcore yet gracious, and she got things done powerfully as a woman in a man’s world.)

Still, more than once, director Steven Spielberg shows Kay walking into boardrooms and courtrooms filled with men as his camera lingers on crowds of women gathered outside their heavy doors. As far as the men inside were concerned, those women may as well have been invisible—but we can see their faces, and we can hear their voices. They are the faces, and voices, of the future.

The Post's Powerful Moment

 

For me, the most powerful part of “The Post” was not the scene in which Katharine tells Ben Bradlee to go ahead and publish—though I LOVED how Kay made her final decision. She didn’t puff up, or act angry; she simply said (I’m paraphrasing here, but not much): “This isn’t my dad’s paper…it is mine. And maybe I need people around me who remember that.” Then she simply says: “My decision sticks, and I’m going to bed.” She said this without being weary and without being arrogant—she said it with quiet and firm conviction.

It also wasn’t the scene in which we see the newspaper’s old hot-metal presses chugging to life as the story goes to print. (I will say, though, that just I loved the tech in this movie: the gigantic photocopier that took forever to warm up, the clatter of the pressroom, the stacks of real newspapers thumping into the street and blowing out of the Post reporters’ hands as they gather around the newsstand to read Sheehan’s scoop in the Times. From our perch here in the digital age, I think we can sometimes forget that our technology isn’t the only technology, and our media isn’t the only media. Sure, we can tell stories faster now, but “The Post” reminds us that “faster” doesn’t automatically mean “better.” It’s the work that counts, not the tools we use to do it.)

No; for me, the most powerful part of “The Post” was the scene in which Katharine returns from the Supreme Court hearing and finds the Pentagon Papers story on the front page of every other major newspaper in the country. Because of her courage, because she stood up and fought for a press that could be free to tell the truth no matter what, she was no longer alone—now, she was part of an army.

We know, now, that the Vietnam War was fueled by fake news. One after another, our presidents lied because they did not want to be held responsible for the truth—and because of their lies, more than a million people are dead. If no one had stood up to that story gap, who knows how long that war would have dragged on? Who knows what it would have taken to stop it?

Kay chose to publish, in the end, because the story gap the Pentagon Papers exposed needed someone—needed her—to close it. Telling the truth was an act of bravery, an act of self-preservation, and an act of liberation. It was an act of patriotism. Most of all, it was an act of love.

And so, for Valentine’s Day, I recommend that you grab a partner, a friend, and/or a giant bag of popcorn and head to a screening of “The Post.” It’s a love story about stories—and as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the best love stories there is.

 

Follow CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin on Twitter. 

 

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