Is that some not-so-subtle shade we do detect in the pages of the New York Times?
Steven Spielberg’s Oscars front-runner The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, recounts a nation-defining story of power and the press—of speaking truth to one and enshrining freedom of the other. The docudrama, set in the summer of 1971, follows the Washington Post in its decision to publish excerpts from the top-secret Pentagon Papers, after an injunction restrained the New York Times, which first broke the story, from continuing to do so. It’s told from the perspective of the scrappy D.C. paper’s brave publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) and bold editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks), faced with the momentous decision—nay, the moral burden—to report the story and uphold freedom of the press in the process. It’s been repeatedly called a prequel to All the President’s Men, another celebration of a historic Washington Post story.
But it’s the snubbed New York Times that has been especially interested in rehashing the history the film portrays. The story told in The Post is, after all, a major moment in the Times’ history. The Grey Lady has covered the release extensively within its pages, throwing shady reminders of its under-recognized role in the Pentagon Papers story—and to whom we really owe a debt for enshrining freedom of the press.
The House Ad
In a full-page house ad in its culture section on Thursday, the New York Times reminded its readers of the real hero of new film’s story: the Times. Promoting The Pentagon Papers, a 1971 book about the legendary scoop, the ad reads, “The Pentagon Papers as Published in the New York Times,” pointing out that it was the Times—not the Post—which won a Pulitzer for its reporting.
The Culture Writer
Even the briefest of articles include a reminder that it was the Times who first broke the story. In a summary of The Post’s trailer back in November, Bruce Fretts was sure to note in a parenthetical aside that “The New York Times ran the first reports on the papers and published some of the documents, but was barred from following up by a court order. The Washington Post then stepped in.” In the Washington Post’s equivalent, Stephanie Merry acknowledged, wearily, that “yes, we know the New York Times did it first.”
The Film Critic
In her review of the film (Dec. 21), New York Times chief film critic Manohla Dargis throws some light shade of her own. She explains that “the real story” began with the New York Times, and points out that the Washington Post had been “publishing rewrites of The Times’s articles” up until the docudrama’s key events.
“Shaping a drama around a newspaper that didn’t break the story seems an odd path to Hollywood triumphalism,” writes Dargis, adding that “it’s no surprise that the movie omits and elides important players and crucial episodes.” She also links to an excerpt from Inside the Pentagon Papers, an account of the events written by New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.
The Media Critic
The most overt criticism in the Times’ pages might be found in Jim Rutenberg’s Dec. 24 Mediator column. The Post—which he notes “some people around here believe should be called The Times”—fails to give equal weight to the arguably greater risk undertaken by Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger. “It is an unfortunate irony,” notes Rutenberg, “that the makers of a film dedicated to the pursuit of truth took dramatic license with Mr. Sulzberger, who died in 2012, in their worthy elevation of Ms. Graham, who died in 2001.” Spielberg’s film implies that Sulzberger only published the papers when his Washington bureau chief threatened to take the papers elsewhere, downplaying his “bold decision,” which in reality involved the risk of “20 years to life.”
Rutenberg also quotes disgruntled former Times staff. In a statement to Rutenberg, Neil Sheehan—the Times’ lead reporter on the story, who is barely seen in the film—praised Sulzberger, who was known as Punch, as the true trailblazer in those fateful weeks. “There was a precedent for Kay Graham. Punch had no precedent.” (In an interview with current Washington Post editor Marty Baron, Hanks said that it is Graham’s story that makes The Post what it is: “They didn’t have Katharine Graham, in all honesty. If they had a Katharine Graham we’d be calling it the New York Times.”)
In a Dec. 20 piece pegged to the release of the film, “Behind the Race to Publish the Top-Secret Pentagon Papers,” Times reporter Niraj Chokshi describes the history of the Times’ incredible Pentagon Papers scoop (the film, he says, “depicts the race at The Washington Post to catch up to Mr. Sheehan’s exclusive”). Chokshi’s account focuses closely on the incredible work done by the Times, work that goes under-recognized in the film. He describes the paper’s refusal to bow to pressure from an angry Nixon administration, and quotes the memoir of the study’s leaker, Daniel Ellsberg: “Only The Times might publish the entire study, and it had the prestige to carry it through.”
The Urban Affairs Correspondent
In “Who’s Who in ‘The Post’: A Guide to the Players in a Pivotal Era” (Dec. 25), urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts explains the story’s real background. “Though the film focuses on The Post and its publisher, Katharine Graham, it was The Times that spent three months reviewing the papers, then publishing articles about them beginning June 13, 1971,” he writes. “The Times defied a Nixon administration warning to stop but abided by a preliminary injunction granted June 15.” Like James C. Goodale, Roberts gives the D.C. paper full credit for Watergate, but not this one, pointing out that “The Post later led the way on Watergate; The Times dominated the Pentagon Papers coverage.”
“The Times correspondent who actually broke the Pentagon Papers exposé is barely seen onscreen,” he writes. Nor are the intense, decisive exchanges between the Times’ editor and publisher, which resembled those portrayed in the film between Bradlee and Graham.
The Washington Post offered its own historical explainer, which mainly adds legendary WaPo details that Spielberg’s film wasn’t able to include—like when the chief justice greeted two Post reporters at his front door, in his bathrobe, clutching a gun. It also clarifies that the D.C. paper never sent an intern to spy on the New York Times.
James C. Goodale, a member of the New York Times’ in-house counsel at the time of the leak, has also expressed discontent with the film—which he calls “good drama but bad history”—in a piece for the Daily Beast on the day of its Dec. 22 release. “It downplays the role of the true catalyst in the real life drama: The New York Times,” he writes, adding that, “It’s as though Hollywood had made a movie about the Times’s triumphant role in Watergate.”
Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, he suggests, are probably laughing in their graves at the story Hollywood has given them—they’ve gotten “the lion’s share of the glory” despite the fact that “it was the Times that did the vast majority of the hard work and took on far more risk in publishing the Pentagon Papers.”
Goodale also points to the far greater role played by the Times legal counsel in the Supreme Court case that upheld press freedom, which he notes was called New York Times v. United States, despite the fact that it is the Post staff we cheer along with at the film’s triumphant climax. Goodale explains that it was the Times’ defense, as written by Times lawyer Alex Bickel, which “was quoted almost verbatim by the Supreme Court and became the law of the case.” The Washington Post’s lead lawyer, he complains, never mentioned the First Amendment at all.
Current Times editor Dean Baquet has also made his disapproval known beyond the pages of the Paper of Record. In a recent email published in Poynter, Baquet, who won’t be seeing the film, wrote that “Arthur [Sulzberger] deserves more than the walk-on he gets. And it pains me that a generation won’t ever know the story of a publisher who bet his entire company on the most important journalism decision of an era.”
“I think drama and commerce trumps history in Hollywood,” he added.
As for A.G. Sulzberger, grandson of Arthur and the Times’ soon-to-be publisher? “I think we’re all looking forward to the next Watergate movie,” he told the New Yorker. “Focussing on the extraordinary reporting of the New York Times.”