"The Post," the 2017 movie aboutFor the uninitiated, the "strikeout" feature of blogs often (usually?) has the function of saying something without saying it, or of hinting at something while disavowing that one is seriously hinting at it. So when I wrote that the film was "about Mr. Trump's refusal to give the Washington Post the respect it deserves by denying its reporters access" and then struck it out and followed it with "the controversy over the Pentagon Papers," I was suggesting that even though the movie ostensibly was a retelling of the story of the Pentagon Papers controversy, it had something to do with the perceived disrespect Mr. Trump has shown the Washington Post and other putatively legitimate news outlets. I was also alluding to what I perceive as a not wholly deserved sense of entitlement among some of the mainstream media outlets or among those who bemoan the decline of their privileges. I was further suggesting that those who complain about Mr. Trump's treatment of mainstream news outlets might not be communicating their message as effectively as they might. In fact, I was suggesting news outlets sometimes (or more than sometimes) take their value, their legitimacy, and most important the prerogatives they have traditionally enjoyed for granted. Those who claim to defend them and a "free press" don't recognize how much the system pre-Trump rested on special access and sometimes special privileges denied to others.
Mr. Trump's refusal to give the Washington Post the respect it deserves by denying its reporters accessthe controversy over the Pentagon Papers case
That's quite a lot to pack into a drive-by "strikeout" joke. That's the problem with drive-by comments in general. They hint at a lot without really saying it, so that the drive-by'er (in that case, me) can get away with making a claim but not really having to take responsibility for that claim. And further, others who have read the drive-by statement and can be excused for taking a different interpretation from the one I meant. (Finally, I have at times criticized others for making drive-by comments.)
So, I'm saying the movie "The Post" was in some sense about Mr. Trump's treatment of the press and that it functioned as a complaint about that treatment. It also functioned as a wistful hope that the press would step up to the plate and hold Mr. Trump and his administration accountable the way the "The Post" and other news media held Mr. Johnson's and Mr. Nixon's administrations accountable during Vietnam and, later, Watergate. I'm suggesting that the news media might never have been quite as deserving of praise as that film, and the two other films I mention, seem to suggest. And I'm suggesting that those films elide (but don't neglect entirely) the problems inherent in their use of anonymous sources and their attempts to gain access to the administrations whose power they are ostensibly there to check.
Am I right? I think I'm right enough that it's a live question we must always keep in mind. The "golden age of journalism" might not have been so golden. Viewpoints that probably should have been explored were probably shunted aside or not discussed. If you were the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Boston Globe, you may have had some privileged access to power and maybe even a little more leeway to write and say what you want, as well as a bully pulpit or at least a bullhorn from which to write and say it. People are right to criticize Fox News for attempts at "fair and balanced" reporting which is accused of assuming that just because there's a controversy, both sides of the controversy are equally legitimate.** But we should be wary before assuming that all previously excluded viewpoints were by definition illegitimate.
In addition to not being so golden, the "golden age" might never really have been an age. Ever since President John Adams, if not before, high-level government officials have tried to managed and corral news media to their purposes. Sometimes they had more success than others. Things change over time. Depending on how one draws the line, the "age" might very well have been as short lived as the three years between the publishing of the Pentagon Papers (1971) and the resignation of Mr. Nixon.
In three other senses, however, I'm wrong. First, I don't have all my facts. Note my hedge words "probably" and "might" and "depending on how one draws the line."
Second, while the movie came out in 2017, it's possible it was conceived and initiated before Mr. Trump even won the election, perhaps even before it was clear he would win the nomination. While I still believe the time in which the film was released made it inevitably "about" Mr. Trump's treatment of the press, that may not have been the intention of the films creators at the time they conceived of it.
Third, while all presidents, especially since FDR, if not prior to him, have used access to manipulate the press, Mr. Trump seems to be doing so brazenly, by denying certain established outlets access even to press conferences and granting access to racist "alt right" outlets (or at least that's the accusation I'm familiar with....I don't have all the facts). If he is only carrying prior presidents' practices and assumptions to a logical extreme, it's an extreme we don't want to abide and an extreme unchecked by other considerations for the greater good.
While I stand by my joke/statement in that post, I do admit that it's not quite as justified or supported or as clear as it could have or should have been.
*Note, that "apologia" from the title of my post is meant in the sense "defense of," as in "the apology of Socrates," not in the modern-day English sense of "express regret for."
**I find that criticism of "fair and balanced" unnerving. If a president or a cabinet-level official, for example, says that torture should be a legitimate policy, it's a controversy for which the "pro-torture" side has to be heard, even though torture is reprehensible. Are news outlets therefore expected to interview only the anti-torture position even as the most powerful people in the country implement that policy? Or maybe the news anchor is supposed to interview the secretary of defense and then look at the camera and say, "I, for one, think this is an outrage!"?