The Post, a new film by Stephen Spielberg, is a political thriller currently playing at a cinema near you.
The story of The Washington Post's desperate struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers, a voluminous study of the Viet Nam War as waged by the United States, is a nail biter.
The Pentagon Papers are classified documents commissioned by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They expose a twenty-year cover-up of clandestine and illegal activities by successive U.S. Administrations that prolong American involvement in Vietnam and cost countless lives.
When Daniel Ellsberg, a former military contractor, leaks the information to the New York Times, the Nixon Whitehouse uses all its legal power to stop publication.
The Washington Post, owned by Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and led by editor in chief, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), make the difficult and dangerous decision to defy the Nixon Administration and publish the Papers.
The transformation of Katherine Graham from newspaper publisher to risk-taking whistleblower is a centerpiece of the film. Graham is challenged to take a stand despite the threat of personal and professional ruin.
The story of Katherine Graham is a classic heroine's mythic journey. She is challenged to leave behind an old identity for a new one through a series of tests. In the course of these tests she is required to stand by her gifts, talents, character qualities and authority.
Graham's tests included the following:
Eugene Meyer, Katherine Graham's father, bypassed his daughter when he chose her husband Phil Graham to succeed him as Publisher. According to her biography, Graham happily accepted her father's choice and filled her life with family, friends and social activities. In her autobiography, Personal History, Graham states:
"Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper."
When her husband commits suicide, she is thrust into the role of Publisher. She searches for a way to make a contribution to the business, a business that is on uneven ground financially. She learns the challenges and difficulties of running a daily newspaper, understanding all the while that a mistake could have catastrophic consequences for the Post. The change of identity - from Washington socialite to confident newspaper Publisher - is the first challenge she faces.
STANDING HER GROUND
The transition to a new leadership role is an uneasy passage for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1960's. Even today the number of companies led by women lags dramatically behind men at approximately 4.8%. In the 1960's you could probably count on one hand - maybe one finger - the number of women leading a major media business.
The film illustrates Graham's difficulty in carving out a significant presence in her own business. In one telling scene Graham suggests more women readers might expand the paper's circulation. Bradlee suggests she stick to her role as Publisher and let him guide Editorial. This is a common friction point in newspaper operations. However, while delivered with good humor by Bradlee/Hanks it is also somewhat condescending.
Will she allow herself to be bullied and silenced? By film's end, Graham assumes command of the newspaper and makes the risky decision to publish the Pentagon Papers despite the legal and financial threat.
THE SEDUCTION OF FRIENDSHIP
The former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, is one of Katherine Graham's oldest and closest friends. In fact, they dated after McNamara's wife died.
When McNamara makes an impassioned plea for Graham's support and the Post's silence, she must find the strength to resist emotional blackmail, and stand by her allegiance to the country, her newspaper, and the truth.
In a powerful encounter, she reminds McNamara what the U.S. policy in Viet Nam has cost the country in terms of lives lost and at those still at risk. Her own son, she reminds him, is still "in country."
THE BOYS CLUB
Graham's advisors are all men, men to whom she defers. With no other women in such a position, and with no role models, Graham is alone in an industry populated by men and characterized by sexism. By her own account, she worried about being taken seriously by the men she employed.
This situation comes to a head when her Board advises her to avoid publishing the Pentagon Papers at a time when the paper is courting investors.
Graham demonstrates trust in her own instincts, honors the mission of the Paper, and publishes the Pentagon Papers despite the risks involved.
THE FEAR OF RUIN
Graham faces two clear threats in standing for the First Amendment against the Nixon Administration: jail and financial ruin.
Despite these looming dangers, she chooses to partner with Bradlee, face internal opposition from her Board, and defy the publication ban.
It is only when Bradlee, hell-bent to defy the government, is taken to school by his wife Antoinette that he realizes the pressure Graham is under. He can get another job, his wife name reminds him. Graham must live with the consequences to her family, enterprise and herself.
THE COURAGE TO BE THE BOSS
If you have acceptance and approval needs, being the boss is a bad idea. You will always do the wrong thing and for the wrong reasons.
Doing the right thing when you are constantly scrutinized, second-guessed and mistrusted because of your lack of experience and your gender, is a brutal way to learn.
Graham, as played by Streep, manages to maintain her composure despite the difficulties and tests. In the end - and when virtually every other major news organization follows her lead- she and Bradlee are vindicated.
Rights of passage are part of every hero's journey, even those in the world of business. In the film The Post, we see a heroine stand by her principles and speak truth to power.
Katherine Graham's story is a timeless reminder that when we refuse to be bullied into silence, we are protecting much more than our jobs.
We are protecting civil society.