Monday, January 18

‘The Pentagon Files’: From Nixon to Trump, News Repeats | Culture

In the prologue to Los Pentagon Papers, the monumental 7,000-page report on two decades of US strategy in Vietnam, brings out a reflection: “Writing about history, especially when mixed with current events and when it comes to Vietnam, is a misleading exercise.” Says Leslie Gelb, the senior official in the Department of Defense who coordinated the project that led to one of the most exciting episodes in the fight for press freedom and the relationship between journalism and power. A story that bears parallels with today and that has served as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s latest film, The Post. This Friday it opens in Spain with the title of The Pentagon Archives.

The report top secret, that Gelb finished on January 5, 1969 after a year and a half of elaboration, showed how successive governments lied to the Americans about their involvement in the Asian country. Washington, for example, carried out covert military operations, was behind the assassination in 1963 of the president of South Vietnam, commanded thousands of soldiers, and defended its bombing campaign even knowing they were ineffective.

Tired of the Pentagon hiding the truth, Daniel Ellsberg, another of the document’s authors and a Vietnam veteran, decided to photocopy it and leak part of it to the press in 1971. That decision opened a political schism and fueled the peace movement.

The Richard Nixon Administration sued the media for divulging official secrets, but the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, agreed with them through a fiery defense of press freedom that has since prevented the government from censoring a newspaper article.

Daniel Ellsberg speaks to reporters in June 1973
Daniel Ellsberg speaks to reporters in June 1973

Almost half a century later, history seems to repeat itself. The context and impact of that report resonate strongly, as evidenced by The Pentagon Archives, which invokes uncomfortable parallels with secrecy, devastating leaks, press harassment, and sexism between then and now America.

The film portrays the frenetic process of the newspaper The Washington Post to get the report after The New York Times publish some first excerpts. And the harrowing decision of Katharine Graham, the editor of the Post, to disseminate the document once obtained, despite the judicial prohibition to do so and his personal collusion for years with the political power.

It is impossible not to see the film from the point of view of the presidency of Donald Trump and the echo of that of Nixon. In fact, that’s how it was conceived. Spielberg became interested in the script based on a play last February. He quickly decided to adapt it. “It was not something that could wait two or three years. It was a story that I felt we should tell today, ”he explained then.


The film is a tribute to press freedom in the face of the temptation of power to erode it and the tenacity of women in a world dominated by men. In one scene, an insecure Graham, played by Meryl Streep, pushes her way before a sea of ​​businessmen who look down on her. In another, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the newspaper’s editor, vehemently defends the publication of the report in the face of the government’s threat to silence him in court: “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” .

Walter Pincus, renowned journalist security expert who retired in 2015 after 40 years in the Post, He believes that, as then, there is a “distrust of the Government” but that the main difference is the so-called post-truth. Trump promotes, without offering evidence, “alternative facts” and “undermines the media.” “You need an honest press that enlightens the public,” says Pincus, warning of the president’s “authoritarian” tics.

Along the same lines, Dana Priest, an investigative journalist for the Post Since the eighties, he maintains that it is the “perfect moment” to release the film because it praises the work of journalism in the midst of the “current horrible environment”. “I did not think there could be a president worse than Nixon in his vision of the media,” he wields in reference to Trump. The Ellsberg leaker, who dodged the Nixon Administration’s court case over procedural problems, has drawn similar analogies.

Trump has made the press his favorite target and misrepresented the concept of fake news to use it for any critical information. Like Nixon, he is obsessed with preventing leaks and has withheld information. He also disdains the limits of power, but the courts have forced him to back down.

Evocations of the present are repeated in the role of Streep, which both journalists consider very reliable. The film opens at a time of examination in the United States on the work culture that has tolerated sexual abuse of women for years. It does not address harassment but it does show how difficult it is for Graham, who took office in 1963 after her husband’s suicide, to be confident and respected in an era with very few women in managerial positions. “It was his first big test,” Priest recalls about the editor, which later was decisive in that the Post He uncovered, starting in 1972, Watergate, the case of espionage on journalists and politicians that forced Nixon to resign.

Pincus emphasizes that the publication of Pentagon Papers He gave the newspaper “guts” to inquire about that episode and also to turn to a more critical journalism. And what do you think of the leaks of diplomatic cables made by Wikileaks in 2010, and of those of Edward Snowden, in 2013 on the espionage of the NSA? Those, he argues, were “more damaging” by including numerous state secrets. “There will always be leaks because there will never be a lack of dissatisfied people in the Government with access to classified material,” he says.

Controversy over the title

The title of the film in America, The Post has caused controversy in journalistic circles since it was The New York Times the first to obtain and publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers and the one that won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for that work. Journalists from Times from that time they have criticized the title. “It’s incredible,” said James Greenfield, who coordinated the release of the documents. “He Post It was the story of the second day, “complained Fox Butterfield, who wrote articles about the leaks. Actor Tom Hanks has defended the title, claiming that the film revolves around Katharine Graham, the editor of the Post.

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