Spielberg’s The Post Reminds Us How Far American Journalism Has Drifted From Its Heyday

You may have heard that there is a new Steven Spielberg movie, coming out tonight in wide release, which stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The reason this powerhouse threesome got together, on remarkably short notice, was to make “The Post,” which tells the story of the role of the Washington Post in the controversial 1971 publishing of the “Pentagon Papers” about the Vietnam War. Without the three of these iconic stars together, it seems impossible that a movie about a newspaper’s role in a forty-seven year old story with almost no “action” or “sex appeal” would ever get made by mainstream Hollywood producers. Ironically, this fact, in some ways, undermines, or perhaps inadvertently amplifies, the fundamental theme of the film itself. At the heart of the story is Streep’s character Katharine Graham, then the owner of the newspaper, and her struggle to balance journalistic integrity with the profitability her family’s company. A key point in the film is when Graham concludes that “quality and profitability” go “hand in hand” when it comes to journalism. It is this “truth” which she uses as a guide through the many difficult decisions she must make throughout the film’s narrative. It is also a “truth” which, if it ever really had validity, certainly no longer does. In fact, this very troubling reality may be the entire premise of the film itself. Sadly, the idea that quality leads to profitability in journalism is today, almost half a century later, utterly laughable. In fact, the evidence is now overwhelming that the opposite is actually true. In order for journalism to be of a high quality, at least these three elements are required: time/resources, skill, and courage (or, at least, job security). All of them are currently in very short supply when it comes to the modern news media. Unlike in 1971, when newspapers were able to assign many reporters to one story for months, there has never been an era in media when there is less time/resources devoted for serious mainstream journalism than the one in which we are currently living. Thanks to massive fragmentation, profit margins are way down and the “firewall” between the commercial and news aspects of media outlets, which Graham so protected, has long ago been mostly extinguished as a method of economic survival. At the same time, the advent of cable TV news, the Internet, and then Twitter has caused news cycles to be measured in minutes, instead of hours, or days. This has forced news to conform to a time pressure which is completely at odds with a pursuit of the real truth, which is usually rather complicated and messy. Consequently, news media outlets now routinely, reflexively hop on false or faulty narratives because they are very easy and popular (which, translated, means “cheap,” “safe,” and “lucrative”). Today, it is FAR “better” for a media outlet to tell a popular myth, than risk going outside of the thundering media herd with an unpopular truth. Even then, unless the “herd” is working in at least near unison, their power to impact events has been greatly diminished. Real “quality” journalism takes not only enormous amounts of time (with no expectation that it will ever result in any feeding of the always starving news monster), but also great talent and bravery. For the most part, today’s mainstream media is not populated with people who possess these qualities. For this, I mostly blame television. Television caused two negative factors to become far more important among those who become mainstream reporters: physical attractiveness, and a desire to get and stay famous. So reporters who once went to top schools and who primarily desired to devote their lives to telling the truth, have been replaced, at least in part, by untrained spokesmodels who will gladly avoid any story or slant which might cause them to lose their very insecure job and, thus their little bit of fame and entire personal identity. This is a significant element of why, when the news media was faced with its greatest challenge in the modern era–what to do about Donald Trump’s candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination–it failed so catastrophically. As a group, they all chose to enable his rise because it was good for them personally, deluding themselves all the while that letting him win the nomination was a “no harm, no foul” proposition since he would surely lose to Hillary Clinton in the general election. Those few who tried hard to rectify this communal error found that they no longer have nearly the same influence over the public as the newspapers of 1971, at least in part because they long ago stopped valuing “quality” over profitability (and, oh yeah, had their pom-poms out cheerleading for Barack Obama for eight full years). Of course, urging the media to hold Trump accountable now is clearly a large part of why this film was made in the first place. The movie, which is well done, is clearly intended as an instruction video, or a source of inspiration, for today’s media to take out Trump the same way that the Washington Post did with Richard Nixon. However, the likely fate of the film itself shows the probable folly of that effort. The subject matter will appeal to almost no one under the age of 50, and subsequently it will not be a big box office hit. It is a passion project which indeed produced a quality product, but one which relatively few people will ever actually see. In the end, “The Post” as a movie will prove the antiquated nature of Graham’s credo. In today’s media, quality and profitability do NOT go hand in hand, and that is a very big part of why we have the very president the movie intends to target. John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at johnz@mediaite.com

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