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‘The Post’ missed an important concept

Paul Wahl is editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain.

Published on February 13, 2018 3:49PM

On a recent trip to Portland, I had the opportunity to see the movie “The Post.” For a life-long newspaper guy, it was interesting to see the inner workings of a portion of the industry portrayed.

While the movie didn’t get it right all of the time, it was an engaging story and one with a significant message –– Is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution worth defending?

The movie tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish what was known at the time as the “Pentagon Papers.” Within the pages was a long web of details that revealed the United States had known for decades a war in Vietnam was unwinable and folly.

Yet administration after administration kept pushing forward with the idea until 1975 when American forces were withdrawn, and South Vietnam was gobbled up by North Vietnam and reunited.

The papers were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, who dug them out of files maintained by his private-sector employer at the time –– clearly a crime. The movie glosses over that fact with an “ends justifies the means” wave of the hand.

The script also failed to mention that Ellsberg was a troubled character who had issues of his own that might have cast some of his activity in a less favorable light.

He was convicted on federal charges and could have spent 100 years in prison. A judge overturned his conviction.

But the most glaring problem for me was the emphasis on the plight of the Washington Post and its future while the First Amendment was barely a footnote. Publishing or not publishing the leaked documents was the ultimate test of the First Amendment, and the U.S. Supreme Court got it right.

The public has a right to know what its government at all levels is up to. In my view, the First Amendment should have been the star of the movie and not necessarily the Washington Post and its foibles.

I was hoping against hope that at some point Meryl Streep playing Katherine Graham or Tom Hanks playing Ben Bradlee would have looked into the camera and said: “It’s a no-brainer. Publishing is protected by the U.S. Constitution, the greatest document ever conceived for governing a people.”

Alas, there is no such line in the movie. The concept isn’t even mentioned.

From my first days as a reporter, the rights granted in the Constitution to the press were part of my daily training, but another huge part was the responsibility that came with those rights.

The failure of the media to be responsible has probably done more to harm the institution in recent years than any other single factor.

Remember when you were a kid and a random adult (perhaps a teacher) told you to do something. Your response was “you’re not my mother, I don’t have to listen to you.”

That’s how the press (television, radio, online and everyone else) views responsibility to the Constitution today. Every time I hear someone say “I have a right to ...” or “I want my rights ...” I shudder. Because you also have a responsibility. But that’s never mentioned.

Overall, “The Post” is a movie worth seeing, but unless you’re a student of American history, it is easy to walk away with the wrong message. That said, movies produced in Hollywood have never been the place to learn history accurately. They’re “entertainment,” which relieves them of the need to be responsibly accurate.

ANOTHER FOOTNOTE on our recent trip to Portland. We were out in the suburban area around Clackamus. The traffic was beyond horrific.

Governments classify roads by something called Level of Service, a term used to qualitatively describe the operating conditions of a roadway based on factors such as speed, travel time, maneuverability, delay and safety.

The level of service is designated with a letter, A to F, with A representing the best operating conditions and F the worst.

Most of the roads we were on received an F grade, which is similar to when you get an F on your report card in school. It’s not good.

We lived in suburban Minneapolis for 18 years. The Minneapolis area is roughly 3.2 million, Portland is less than 750,000. We never saw congestion in suburban Minneapolis like we saw in suburban Portland. The good residents of Minnesota would have stormed the Bastille.

I guess the intelligent traffic planners don’t work in Portland. There were roads where it was impossible to make a left-hand turn in the middle of the day. By rush hour, you couldn’t make a left-hand or a right-hand turn. And the endless stream of traffic lights only made things worse.

It takes all the fun out of a trip to the “big city.”


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