I didn’t want to write about U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Fake News Awards.” I really didn’t. When I received an email alert from Fox News about the full list—a list, it is interesting to note, which contained no stories or reporters from Fox—I was, honestly, stunned. I didn’t expect the “awards” to be posted on the GOP website. Although the site crashed almost immediately, the fact that the list was posted there—and not, as I had expected, in a series of tweets from Trump’s account—added an air of seemingly-needed legitimacy to the whole thing.
As a journalism student, journalist and strong believer in the indisputable importance of the freedom of the press, I didn’t want to legitimize Trump’s open attack on the media any further by writing about it (if only to my audience). But the more I thought about Trump’s anti-media rhetoric, the more I was reminded of the new movie The Post, which I saw recently and really enjoyed.
The Post tells the story of the tough decision faced by The Washington Post editors and publisher Katharine Graham in the wake of The New York Times publishing, and subsequently being barred from publishing, stories about the Pentagon Papers in 1971. (The papers revealed the scope of U.S. involvement in the war, and notably the fact that four U.S. presidents who served at the time of the war did not think America would win, yet kept sending more troops.) Should The Post publish stories about the papers, even though they would face almost certain legal action?
Legal action wasn’t the only concern in deciding whether to publish the stories. Graham had political friends who would be impacted by the stories, like Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defence. Her husband had been close friends with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor, was also friends with Kennedy, among others. The Post’s eventual decision to publish marked, at the time, a shift from journalists being friends with politicians to journalists taking on more of a watchdog role (or perhaps simply choosing to uphold this role despite existing friendships).
I won’t spoil too much (although it is based on history, so it’s technically not spoiling anything) but the end of the movie shows then-president Richard Nixon in his office, angrily discussing his disdain for the Washington Post and saying that no Post reporter would ever be allowed in the White House again. The audience in the theatre tittered—Nixon’s words, of course, are ironic considering The Post’s Watergate coverage. But there was another underlying amusement in his words. The words—and the enraged tone—sounded not too different than the current occupant of the Oval Office.
To me, The Post was a reminder of all of the behind-the-scenes work journalists do when working on a story. Trump’s attitude towards the media suggests he thinks certain journalists and news organizations are out to get him, and will publish any claim to try to bring him down. Nixon may have thought something similar. But in The Post, we see the work of journalists to verify the information they’re receiving—and we see the immensely difficult considerations they must make about what information to publish. Both in the movie and in real life, the decision was made to publish the Pentagon Papers stories because the public has a right to know about what their government is doing.
In seeking to hold truth to power, some journalists make mistakes. As Vox points out, the reporters and outlets listed in Trump’s “Fake News Awards” almost always issued corrections (in one case, reporters and editors resigned followed the publication of a story which turned out to be false). There are certainly lots of examples of unequivocally false stories on the Internet, but the ones Trump listed do not fit this category. In denouncing the press for their mistakes, Trump demonstrates a profound ignorance of the true role of journalists in a free and democratic society. Maybe he should watch The Post.