The First Rough Draft of History

The first time I dreamt about being a reporter was after seeing the movie “All The President’s Men.”
I was 12 when the movie hit the screens in 1976 and it all seemed so romantic to me: clandestine meetings with anonymous sources in dark and scary parking garages, Robert Redford clanking away on an old typewriter and the amazing Jason Robards just crushing the role of the charismatic, wise and fearless editor Ben Bradlee.
I could see myself doing this, I thought.

But as cool as it all seemed, my aspirations to write for a newspaper ranked fourth in my boyhood mind: right after pitching for the Yankees, playing centerfield for the Mets and winning Wimbledon.
Ahhh…youth. The endless possibilities of possibilities.

Needless to say, I never did pitch in the majors  and the closest I came to winning Wimbledon was finishing runner up in a junior tournament at the Stony Brook Swim & Racquet Club –losing the match after a foot fault was called at the worst possible moment —but that’s a story for another day.
Today my mind is on journalism and the nobility of that profession.

We went to see The Post which has lots of Oscar buzz and star power with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks anchoring a stellar cast.
“It’s a must see for journalists,” to quote my friend Marisa Herman, herself an excellent young reporter.
It’s also a must see for all those who value the important role the press plays in a Democracy.
Quite simply, there is no Democracy without a free press.

A press free to report, opine, investigate and publish without fear of government censor or seizure.

Far from being the enemy of the people, a free press is a guarantor of our American ideals. As Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee says in the movie: who else will hold em accountable if we don’t?

The Post is a fascinating look at the decision by Katharine Graham to publish The Pentagon Papers despite threats from the Nixon administration.
Among the myriad of issues is whether the sanctity of the First Amendment trumps the power of the presidency to keep certain sensitive and potentially embarrassing items a secret.
The Supreme Court said it does and so the Washington Post and the New York Times prevailed in their court battle over the Pentagon Papers.

Thank goodness, they did.

It’s a feel good movie that chronicles an era and has some eerie relevance to our current times.
The Graham family were powerful Washington players and were said to play strong behind the scene roles in D.C. politics. The legendary Bradlee was close friends with JFK and Jackie and Katherine Graham was close with Vietnam era Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. It didn’t stop her from giving the go ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers which would lay bare the deception promulgated by several administrations regarding the Vietnam War.

As someone who has worked as a reporter, editor and publisher I can relate –on a small level– to having to report on people you know and like.
More than once during my career as a reporter I was asked to pull punches, hold off on stories and look the other way.
As Bradlee notes in the movie, people can be friends or sources but not both.
The Post is a great primer for any young person considering a career in journalism. It’s also a stirring reminder of how important a role the press plays in keeping citizens of a Democracy informed.

I’ve been in the unique position of having covered elected officials as a reporter and being covered as an elected official. One of my greatest frustrations of being on the other side of the notebook was I felt many local reporters were missing the larger stories happening in the community. I wanted more coverage, not less because I felt so much was being missed. Covering government meetings often devolves into “he said, she said” stories. Where journalists can shine is to provide the information or objective facts that can tell you whether he or she is telling the truth. Sadly, that’s often missed. But great local journalism does exist and its immensely important. I often wonder if our dismal turnout for local elections is in part caused by citizens not knowing what’s really going on and therefore missing out on how important it is to know and to cast a ballot.

If citizens saw a movie like The Post, they may be inspired to read, get involved and engage in the issues.
The Post is great storytelling. Essential history. A movie that reminds you of why a free press keeps us free.



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