Steven Spielberg teaches us about freedom of the press with “The Post”

Steven Spielberg has given us a valuable history less on freedom of the press in his Oscar season masterpiece, “The Post”.

The film is transparent and clear to follow. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is taking The Washington Post public on the American Stock Exchange.  In the early summer of 1971, The New York Times publishes the first installment of The Pentagon Papers as leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), while the Post feels embarrassed at the time by competing only with a story of a Nixon family wedding. The Nixon administration gets a court to enjoin the NYT, as the case heads for the Supreme Court. But a mole tracks down Daniel Ellsberg in a motel and gets 4000 pages more of material and delivers the stuff to the Post. The paper has to weigh the risks of indictment (if they reasonably know that the leak of classified material is the same as for the NYT) and ruining the public offering. The decision winds up in, well, a woman’s hands and that is a good thing.

The film obviously matters now given President Trump’s constant threats to the press, and the whole issue of “opening up libel laws” to function more like Britain’s.

The film opens with a war scene in Vietnam set in 1966, with an infantry patrol in the jungles, and many body bags. Soon we see a reported typing.  Combat journalism is itself a risky occupation.

We also see the technology of the times, pre-internet, when people used pay phones and typewriters, and we see the actual typesetting of the Post edition, almost as we might have in a 50s film.

I spent the summer of 1968 in the Pentagon after finishing Basic Training. I suspect one reason I was transferred is that “they” didn’t want me to “find out” some things.  I suspect that the papers included material about “McNamara’s morons” (book review coming). Bruce Greenwood plays the over-elite Defense Secretary, who knew right off that the NYT piece was bad for him. One issue that comes up in the film is whether the release of the Papers could jeopardize soldiers (often draftees) on the Vietnam patrols.

I had a misadventure seeing it at the Ballston Quarter Regal.  The garage elevators failed, with an electrical problem due to moisture and rapid warmup after a freeze.  I already had a ticket. At my insistence, the security guard let us use the fire stairs to get to the theater.

Tom Hanks and Sarah Paulson play Bradlees.  It’s interesting to see how much work was done in private homes.  The New York Times runner (Luke Slattery) is quite charismatic himself; this was during the days before bicycle messengers (or Internet pdf’s for that matter).

The end of the film gives us a “sneak” of Watergate, after Nixon banned reporters from the White House. Nixon would develop the peace agreement that stopped most American fighting in January 1973.

The film skipped the musical fanfares of the various companies at the beginning, which is unusual for 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks, which haven’t been paired together as far as I recall.

It’s also interesting that Mr. Spielberg stayed with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio format for this film, which in some ways almost seems like a stage play.

Legacy review of “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”.

Name: “The Post”
Director, writer:  Steven Spielberg
Released:  2017/12/22
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/12, daytime, fair crowd (logistical problems in the building held down the crowd)
Length:  103
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox, DreamWorks, Participant Meida
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, January 12, 2018 at 7:30 PM)

“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”: AFIDocs shows film about secret efforts to silence the established press; what about amateurs?

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”, by Brian Knappenberger, confronts us with the problem that the wealthiest classes may try to silence the established press by secretly bankrolling litigation, and by secret hostile takeovers of media outlets.

The film does focus on the Fourth Estate, the credentialed press, as such.  The viability of the Fifth (the amateur base) would make a subject for another documentary, I think, one that could focus on open access, for example.

The film focuses on two big events.

The first of these is the lawsuit Bollea vs. Gawker, by “Hulk Hogan” against Gawker media, and personally against several employees, for posting some of a private sex tape online.  Some employees were bankrupted personally and had assets frozen by judgment.  There is a scene where one younger male employee testifies (in Florida) flippantly about the idea of fictitious sex involving minors, an idea that helped bring down Milo Yiannopoulos this year, and affected a serious incident in 2005 when I worked as a substitute teacher, the details of which I have written about elsewhere.  It also had an indirect effect on the 2016 elections, which the film gets into in its second half.  A visit to today’s Gawker shell is well worth a visit and rather sobering.  I do wonder about situations where individual speakers could be effectively silenced by aggressive litigation and bargaining, but that is another topic.

An important concept in the suit was whether Bollea’s conduct, as a WWE public figure, was newsworthy and generated a higher standard of proof from the plaintiff.  This was technically a privacy case;  similar ideas occur with defamation.

About 40 minutes into the film, the documentary introduces the clandestine role of gay Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel in bankrolling the suit, as revenge for his being outed in 2007 by Gawker. In one humorous scene Thiel stumbles as he calls Gawker “sociopathic”.  Thiel’s speech in Cleveland at the RNC is quoted, but I recall Thiel’s saying that the country (including LGBTQ people) has more pressing problems than bathroom bills. Indeed, Thiel has offered scholarships to young inventors to start businesses instead of finishing college.  One of these went to nuclear fusion power inventor Taylor Wilson, now 23, very much in the clean energy business (which Trump has sidestepped) but also new levels of port security.  (Sorry, some “inventors” do need to finish college:  Jack Andraka will have to finish medical school to become a cancer researcher;  both Wilson and Andraka would deserve their own documentary feature films, as Andraka especially fits into the open access debate). The film shows Thiel with a chessboard, and indeed he is an accomplished tournament competitor, preferring direct attacking openings starting with 1 e4 (as did Bobby Fischer); he could probably be a real challenge for Magnus Carlsen to beat.

But the film focuses on the fact that Thiel’s backing of the litigation occurred in secret for a while.  So we have powerful business people (even in the LGBTQ community) silencing forces that oppose them.  Trump is not the only one.  This happens on the Left as well as the Right.

For its last third, the film shifts its narrative to Las Vegas, and the clandestine purchase of the Las Vegas Review Journal by the family of self-made billionaire Sheldon Adelson who then reportedly influenced what would be published about high-roller developers.

The film covers Donald Trump’s particular vilification of the established media as an enemy.  His speech about opening up libel laws (to resemble those in England where the defendant has to prove truth) is quoted. Presumably Trump sees journalists as “watchers” or “spectators” who don’t put their own skin in the game;  but curiously, despite his reported disdain for computers, he loves Twitters and doesn’t seem to show the same disdain for journalists from smaller companies (like OAN) or independent bloggers.

The Journal Review I believe is the same paper that was involved with “copyright troll” Righhaven starting in 2010.  The law firm bought rights to articles from various smaller client newspapers (“champerty”) and then sued even low-level bloggers who allegedly violated copyright in various trivial ways.  At the time, there was a theory that bloggers were destroying small newspapers.  I’ve covered the development with a Blogger label here.  Note the coverage in the Journal Review and in Arstechnica.

Director QA (some technical problems with feedback):

Fact Sheet:

Name:  “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”
Director, writer:  Brian Knappenberger
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  2017 AFI-Docs, Landmark E St, Washington, 2017/6/16, sold out
Length:  95
Rating:  PG-13 (?)
Companies:  Luminant, Submarine, Netflix
Link:  Luminant

(Picture: Mine, 2012 trip in Las Vegas;  2015, Tampa Bay, near the litigation site; 2016, NYC midtown)