Front Porch | The fourth estate and democracy
The 2017 film The Post, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, depicts the story of The Washington Post’s successful effort to publish the Pentagon Papers, classified documents about the 30-year involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War.
After the Nixon administration went to court to block The New York Times from publishing the papers, the documents were leaked to the Post.
Meryl Streep plays the role of Katherine Graham, the Post’s first female publisher, and the second female publisher of a major American newspaper. Tom Hanks plays the legendary hard charging and colorful Ben Bradlee as executive editor.
Graham’s father Eugene Isaac Meyer published the paper from 1933 to 1946. The journal remained in the family through the remainder of the 20th century. He asked his son-in-law Phil Graham, Katherine’s husband, to succeed him as publisher.
Katherine Graham succeeded her husband in 1963 after he committed suicide following years battling alcoholism and depression. Phil Graham’s brother is former Florida Senator Bob Graham.
The decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was one of the more monumental decisions of her career. Graham and Bradlee faced the possibility of criminal indictment if the Post published the papers.
Against the advice of attorneys and other advisers, Graham sided with Bradlee and the newsroom to publish the papers. In a six-to-three decision the Supreme Court found the Post was in its right to publish the papers, citing freedom of the press.
The publication of the papers was embarrassing to the hostile and vengeful Nixon administration and to Robert McNamara, who had served as President Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary.
Johnson escalated the Vietnam War following John F. Kennedy’s initial commitment of U.S. forces to the Southeast Asian nation. McNamara grew weary of the war.
Graham and McNamara were close friends. He was especially supportive of Graham after her husband’s suicide.
The papers showed that McNamara fairly early in the war thought it unwinnable even though he was simultaneously insisting that the war could be won.
Johnson and McNamara were sending young men to their death and allowing scores of Vietnamese to be killed, as much of Southeast Asia and the U.S. was being torn apart.
The relationship between the press corps and political and government officials of the era before the war was chummy, and at times incestuous. Bradlee and Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were friendly, similar to Graham’s relationship with McNamara and other Washington politicos.
Bradlee revealed that after Kennedy’s assassination he went to the hospital in Washington D.C. to console Jackie, who told him that the conversation he witnessed that evening could never be published. Bradlee agreed. The Bradlees and the Kennedys socialized together at the White House and during vacations.
The Kennedys, the Grahams and the Bradlees were members of the Georgetown set of the tony and exclusive Washington D.C. neighborhood where many Washington powerbrokers resided and socialized.
In publishing the Pentagon Papers, Graham and Bradlee went against their social set and clique. They both realized that an era of chumminess and winking and nodding between government leaders and media owners, publishers and editors was over.
The Washington Post went on to reveal the Watergate affair, helping to bring down the Nixon administration.
For many years The Nassau Guardian was the mouthpiece of the white oligarchy and the United Bahamian Party. It was an example of commercial interests superseding broader national interests and higher democratic and journalist values.
The fourth estate, so named because of the critical and special role it plays in a democracy, should not become so friendly with other powerbrokers that it is unable to report the news fairly and accurately.
But nor should the press be instinctively hostile, even to the point of claiming that a certain media house was responsible for bringing down a government. The reflexive negativity and jaundiced view of some in the press is a threat to good journalism, as is becoming too close to certain politicians or officials.
The Washington Post is today owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the storied journal to provide long-term financial stability to ensure its survival as a leading U.S. newspaper committed to journalistic excellence amidst the decline of news journals.
Bezos is not involved with journalistic decisions at the Post. But he recognized the role of newspapers and the media in a democracy. Bezos wanted the newspaper to have the resources necessary for investigative journalism and in holding government and business leaders accountable.
Because of the role of a newspaper in a democracy, it needs the resources required to hire and sustain good journalists and editors.
Because of the economics of newspapers and/or the unwillingness or inability of some owners to commit more resources, we are beset by a constant turnover of journalists, with many young reporters, who often lack experience and judgment. Many leading newspapers in the world have older seasoned reporters who typically have decades of experience.
Those owners of broadcast stations and newspapers who have the resources would contribute significantly to our democracy by investing the resources needed to hire experienced reporters and editors. Unless this happens, the quality of journalism in the country is unlikely to improve.
There is also a danger when certain interests own media houses, utilizing these enterprises to further their own select agendas and interests. Because of the role the fourth estate plays in a democracy there are restrictions in various countries as to the ownership of certain media businesses.
In the film Citizen Kane, the brilliant actor and director Orson Welles famously played the role of Charles Foster Kane, a character based on newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst Sr., who died in 1951, and other tycoons, including Joseph Pulitzer, who the Pulitzer Prize is named after.
As Wikipedia notes: “William Randolph Hearst Sr…. was an American businessman, politician, and newspaper publisher who built the nation’s largest newspaper chain and media company, Hearst Communications, and whose flamboyant methods of yellow journalism influenced the nation’s popular media by emphasizing sensationalism and human interest stories.”
The media landscape in The Bahamas continues to evolve amidst economic challenges in a media market which is saturated with too many entities in such a small country.
There is also the demand to fill newspapers and broadcasts with new content, often leading to poorly reported, sensational or weak journalism.
How the press and media will continue to evolve, especially in a new age of various social media will in large part depend on the resources owners are willing and able to invest in a fourth estate beset by myriad journalistic challenges.
Journalism is a noble profession and there are any number of fine journalists in the country. But they need the resources required to strengthen the fourth estate and to ensure quality journalism.