Inspired by historical film, The Post, Annie Warren considers our relationship with news headlines in the present day.
The Post is a 2017 historical film about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. It stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks respectively as The Washington Post’s publisher, Catherine Graham, and its editor, Ben Bradley. In brief, the film is centred around the Vietnam War and focuses on the publication of a secret report showing that the American government had known for years that there was no chance they could win, but that they had continued to send thousands of men to their deaths in order to save face.
It’s an accessible and entertaining watch for those of us who enjoy slightly cheesy moments of tension, replete with swelling orchestra and other such clichés — at most, you might hesitate over these moments before thinking, “oh, go on then”. It is Spielberg after all.
The film manages to jump on the (important and overdue) feminist bandwagon with moments that aren’t quite shoehorned but are perhaps injected in. The moments I’m referring to are the shots of Graham entering an all-male office and being unashamedly talked over and ignored, even as the most senior person in the room. Cue many a “yaaaaas queen” when, towards the end of the film, Graham’s character arc allows her to sweep around in a gorgeous white and gold caftan and tell boring middle-aged male characters to shut up.
These moments culminate in (and I would insert a spoiler alert here but I’m not sure you can ‘spoil’ history) Graham overruling the aforementioned boring male characters and going ahead with the publication of the papers, even though it is very probably against the law. She wins her court case and glides down the steps of the court building into a crowd of silent, adoring women and off into the feminist sunset (almost — she actually glides off into the Watergate scandal, see: All the President’s Men).
[Given that I’ve commented on Streep’s incredible caftan, in the interests of equality I feel I should now note the aesthetic of the male lead. Hanks is dashingly dishevelled, sporting what I like to call ‘journalist chic’ – the wrinkled blue shirt, sleeves rolled up and not a top button in sight, the braces, the glasses, the furrowed brow. Bravo, Mr Hanks, bravo.]
“A story about political power being held to account!” I hear you cry. “How timely! How relevant!” Indeed, when good ol’ Steve saw the script for the film, he completely reshuffled his work schedule (take a backseat, Ready, Player One) in order to have The Post filmed, produced and in the cinemas within nine months because he thought it was such an important and urgent project — you’ve heard the spiel(berg).
I’d have to disagree with you on the ‘timely’ front, though. The Post isn’t timely at all, it’s nostalgic. It’s the Fake News era’s sentimental view of pure, gallant journalism. And, as is a requirement of nostalgia, we have to put on our journalist-chic rose-tinted glasses in order to filter out the bits that don’t quite fit with our wistful world view.
First, let’s talk about how we consume news — insert printing press montage here. The Post draws attention to the mechanics of how a newspaper is made — the physical act of assembling the type onto the stone before printing and distributing it by bike, for example. My housemate and former BBC journalist Elizabeth Blunt recalls the way the building would tremble when the press started up with a misty look in her eyes. Even the pen pots on the upper floors would shake and jump off the desks.
But timehop to 2018 and Liz is also very tech-savvy with four times as many Twitter followers as me (it’s fine. It’s really fine. But my Twitter handle is @anniewarren93 if you want to give me a boost). The Post’s emphasis on the materials of newspaper-making is suggestive of the notion that analogue work is somehow more difficult or noble than digital endeavours. I find this to be overly simplistic and regressive as an idea, as anyone who has ever had ‘website maintenance’ as part of their job description will tell you.
Though in my heart I will always prefer to turn real paper pages and I remain one of the few on my Publishing Master’s course that doesn’t own a Kindle, I don’t believe that digital as a medium is inherently any less worthy than print. It does however throw into question some issues about who we get our news from.
In the early 1970s, public knowledge was more or less solely shaped by what journalists wrote and the way in which they wrote it. Nowadays, this is less and less the case. Any idiot with an internet connection can publish their opinions as liberally as they like — which is by no means a bad thing, though isn’t it sad how often we mistake strong and freely given opinions for a genuine understanding of the issue at hand? I’m not just talking about everyman Joe Bloggs and his blog, but supposedly reputable sources that feed us sensationalism at the expense of accuracy — not to name names, but the obvious target starts with a D- and ends with –aily Mail.
Finally there’s the issue of what we’re reading. We were taught in secondary school that when you write a newspaper column, the most essential information goes at the top and trails off into ‘important stuff’ and then ‘inessential details’ the further down you read. But in the age of 140-character limits (well, 280-character limits, but I think we can all agree that that was a stupid idea that should have been left in 2017), how many of us take the time to actually read and consider news stories before moving onto the next funny meme? Probably less of us than we’d like to admit.
To be fair, we don’t always need to read on. It’s common knowledge that the most powerful man in the world has claimed to have grabbed women by the pussy and decries immigrants from “shithole countries” coming to the US. Either you’re a staunch supporter of the President (whom one of my teenage Austrian students once dubbed “The Burnt Chicken Nugget”) no matter how many wildly ignorant and offensive things he says, and therefore you don’t care enough about it to read on, or you know without a doubt that he’s an ignoramus bigot of international proportions and don’t want to read on. The headline, in many cases, is enough.
Given that the how and the who and the what of news and information have been so fundamentally transformed, is there still a place for the kind of serious investigative journalism so glorified in The Post? Of course there is.
I think it’s absolutely fair that everyman Joe Bloggs should have his blog and keep it. He should have the right to assert his thoughts to as wide an audience will listen — that’s freedom of speech, and freedom of speech is an essential element of democracy. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, democracy is only as good as the education system that surrounds it, and I doubt I’m alone in feeling that the top Google search of “What is the EU?” on the 24th June 2016 is indicative of how badly our education system has failed us.
We can have our own opinions, but we cannot have our own facts. It is precisely here that The Post-style journalism can heroically step in to correctly inform us of the details as comprehensively as possible so that we may draw our own conclusions. The problem is working out how we can inspire people to value this style of news enough to firstly pay it sustained attention when something more entertaining is never more than a scroll away and secondly pay for it when the more entertaining material is available for free.
How a society would go about doing that, I don’t have the foggiest. After all, I’m just an idiot with an internet connection.