Last week I took in The Post. That's the Steven Spielberg film detailing the story behind The Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It stars Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, the Post's chief executive, and Tom Hanks as the paper's editor, Ben Bradlee.
Intentionally or otherwise, The Post ended up revealing a huge reason why readers have increasingly given up on large for-profit news organizations. They turn out to be run by ignorant people, who know far less than those they pretend to inform. The would-be informants are blinded by the profit motive. Moreover, their organizations' top-down structures prevent them from even hearing those who work for them. Thankfully, however, The Post unwittingly suggests remedies for the dire situation it depicts -- some of which are taking form before our very eyes.
The Post begins with a revealing vignette of the Vietnam War. It shows a world invisible to the newspaper's sophisticated editors. There, U.S. infantry are seen executing one of their commanders' signature "Search and Destroy" missions. The maneuver consisted in having poor, terrified disproportionately black and brown twenty-somethings make their way through rainforests they knew nothing about in search of Vietnamese farmers exquisitely familiar with the terrain. The idea was to find the farmers awaiting them in ambush and kill them. According to the strategy, if they did that enough times, the Americans would soon eliminate the peasants and win the war.
In fact, by 1971, when The Post begins, it was clear to nearly everyone outside the Beltway that the whole idea was stupid, crazy, doomed, and immoral. That was especially evident to those at the wrong end of Vietnamese rockets and machine guns, as well as of those with any shred of religious conscience. Buddhist monks called attention to the war's immorality as they immolated themselves in Saigon as far back as 1963. So did the Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, when in 1967 he "Broke Silence" at New York's Riverside Church. The Muslim, Malcolm X, knew it, as did the boxer, Mohammed Ali. The Catholic Berrigan Brothers and the Catonsville Nine knew.
Even Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, and Joan Baez were in the know. So were the college students demonstrating (with four of them murdered) at Kent State in 1970 -- not to mention the throngs of young people brutalized by Mayor Daley's riot police at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968.
Yet with straight faces, the enlightened and secular mainstream media continued to parrot the lies of the generals and politicians. "Great progress is being made," the war-makers told the official stenographers. "There is light at the end of the tunnel."
All such statements were about Southeast Asia were known to be false by the ones uttering them. They should have been known by Washington Post editors too. An early sequence in the film shows Truman lying about it, then Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and, of course, Richard Nixon.
And why did they lie? Was it for reasons of national security or to prevent countries in the region from falling to communism like so many dominoes? Again, no. According to Robert McNamara in the film, seventy percent of it was to prevent embarrassment on the part of the "leaders" responsible for the enterprise in the first place.
Or as Nixon himself put it when he described the ultimate impact of the Pentagon Papers revelations:
"To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing.... You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and you can't rely on their judgment; and the -- the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong."
So, to prevent such irreparable damage to "national security," the wholesale killing went on for years -- long after those responsible for the disaster had concluded the war was genocidal and completely unwinnable. In the end, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and two million Vietnamese were sacrificed to the myth of Presidential Infallibility -- to conceal the fact that OUR GOVERNMENT IS RUN ON LIES.
And (other than repeating government falsehoods) what was the press doing while all of this was going on? What were The Washington Post's Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee doing? According to the film, they were hobnobbing with the liars. They were dining with them in expensive DC restaurants, vacationing with them in Hyannis, posing with them for photo-ops, throwing parties for them, guarding their secrets, and attending meetings with Wall Street insiders and white men in dark suits.
Their big news item? Tricia Nixon's wedding!