When the movie ended, the audience applauded and I couldn’t have been more surprised if a notice had appeared on the screen announcing that popcorn was going on sale in the lobby for 25 cents a box.
To be sure, it wasn’t quite a standing ovation. Not the kind whooping and screeching you’d hear if Oprah or Ellen had declared that everyone in their studio audience was receiving a new car. Still, the even scattered applause wasn’t something I expected. Because the name of the movie was “The Post,” and the focus was on the news media, a profession which, as you may have heard, is regarded by many Americans as only slightly more honorable than dealing in drugs or child pornography.
It was a movie about decades of government deceptions by administrations of both political parties — and the news media’s struggle to expose them. A civics lesson, if you will, about the importance of a free press. A reminder that the duty of the news media, with all its imperfections, is not to serve the government, but to serve the governed.
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It may have been preaching a bit to the choir. The demographics of the audience in the half-filled movie theater skewed heavily to 50-plus, those who lived through an era when the headlines were dominated by Vietnam and Daniel Ellsberg. Pentagon papers and Richard Nixon.
And for me, at least, it was something of a nostalgia trip, taking me back to my first years in this business. To stories written with manual typewriters on sheets of paper that then were inserted into containers and sent by pneumatic tubes to the printers. Noisy newsrooms filled with shouting editors, scurrying reporters and cigarette smoke. Footage of sign-waving crowds demonstrating IN FAVOR of the press.
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As a movie, it may have been a bit too self-righteous. Along with a somewhat heavy-handed attempt to imply that the seeds of today’s female empowerment movement were sown on the day Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham summoned the courage – risking financial ruin and possible jail time — to publish government secrets.
Even if “The Post” doesn’t take home an Oscar for best movie this year, perhaps that little bit of applause in a half-filled movie theater may indicate that mainstream journalism is not doomed, after all. That not everyone agrees with those whose answer to just about everything is “fake news.” Which means, of course, news with which they don’t agree.
Because while the story may have been set in the 1970s, its message was affirmation that the need for a free press is as relevant today as tomorrow morning’s tweets.
I think that’s worth a round of applause.