I am in a darkened movie theater in Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. It’s a long way from the Ioka in Exeter, New Hampshire, where the upholstery had seen better days and the screen was little more than a mottled suggestion. Everything here is plush: fully reclining assigned seats, liquor in the lobby, a virtual First Class fantasy flight to compete with all the comforts of home and Netflix.
On the pristine screen, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks portray Katharine “Kay” Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, and Ben Bradlee, its executive editor. The year is 1971, and the Post was more local than national. Steven Spielberg has the era solidly in his jaws, and I’d see Streep and Hanks in anything. I’ll wager you would too.
Hanks plays his usual avuncular self, an update of Jason Robards’ limning of Bradlee in All the President’s Men four decades ago. Hanks is a Walter Burns out of the Front Page. Back in ‘71, when the Pentagon Papers hit the Supreme Court – spoiler alert if you’re too young to remember – the Supremes ruled 6-3 in favor of publication. Those in media who would not like to see that precedent overturned at some next opportunity must pray nightly for the health of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Notorious RBG. The times they are a-changin’.
A trope of the film has Graham and Bradlee meeting at odd hours at her doorstep, a kind of chaste mistletoe. The cream-colored Graham manse at 2920 R Street in Georgetown becomes a virtually animate character itself, an extension of its matron. Watching those doorway encounters in the projector’s lambent light, my mind drifted back to another night, under the Carter administration, when I lived just down the hill on Q Street.
I was toiling in semi-obscurity in a bookish corner of the Time Inc. empire, aspiring for a scoop that might rocket me into the big time – or at least a People article. I had just parked my Ford Maverick rust bucket, and was walking home ‘round midnight. There, at the entrance to her driveway, Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee lingered in heated discussion. As in a clearly fictitious incident in the film – small spoiler alert – when Bradlee dispatches an intern to spy on the competition at the New York Times, I tried to hang back and eavesdrop on the two legendary figures discussing the next morning’s headline. It was too juicy not to. A sense of fair play kept me from trying to capitalize somehow on their overheard conversation. Instead, I tucked it away in my media hero kit bag, alongside sightings of the Post’s Bob Woodward, who lived down the block, where Henry Kissinger walked his dog nightly. A choice hydrant perhaps. Georgetown was nothing if not a small world.
A few years later, having made the leap – up or down, you decide – to television news, I traveled with historian William Manchester to Fairmont, West Virginia, sent Charles Kuralt back on the road, and took innumerable other journeys into heartland America. I began to see that, great as the Washington Post and the New York Times were, there was an alternative universe of stories across the Potomac and the Hudson. And wherever I traveled, local newspapers turned up as well.
Today, as Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger – a fun pen name for news buffs to decipher – detail in a recent analysis in the American Prospect, private equity firms are squeezing what they can out of all too many newspapers, slashing newsrooms and lacking the ink-fingered purpose that is newspapers’ secret sauce. Thankfully, local papers remain the backbone of many a city and town, holding government and institutions accountable and giving voice to the community. But with 94 percent of Millennials swiping smartphones, it is no wonder that 74 percent of the 18-34 generation glean what passes for news on Facebook and similar online echo chambers. The spiritual heirs of Graham, Bradlee and their legacy are right to be worried.
In a business that was never easy in the best of times, today’s increasingly digital pennies are a poor substitute for newsprint dollars. Yet dedicated media moguls still invest in newspapers in all their manifestations. The Washington Post is no longer in the Graham family. Ironically, it is now safeguarded by Jeff Bezos, the hard-nosed architect of online colossus Amazon. Bezos is a man who plays to win, not to lose money. Inside today’s Post is a baseball-style electronic scoreboard, with trending news updating every second. It sure isn’t Bradlee’s newsroom. But different doesn’t mean inferior: under editor Marty Baron, he of Spotlight film fame from his days at the Boston Globe, a revitalized Post has spent the last year breaking scoop after scoop. Local or national, news rules.
Roll the film. Roll the presses. Roll on, Columbia.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker.