Inside the True Story Behind The Post: How One Woman's Decision Impacted the First Amendment
The First Amendment has been front and center in the press under President Donald Trump’s administration. That’s what makes Steven Spielberg’s new movie so incredibly timely.
The director’s latest drama The Post chronicles The Washington Post‘s 1971 effort to publish the legendary Pentagon Papers over the objections of the United States government. Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the film was recently nominated for six Golden Globe awards.
Ahead of the film’s Dec. 22 release, here is the extraordinary true story behind The Post:
Introduction to the Pentagon Papers
In the early spring 1971, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) heard of a groundbreaking story in the works at the New York Times. But it wasn’t until mid-summer that they were first introduced to the Pentagon Papers.
The “Pentagon Papers” was the name given to the top-secret report United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, which United States military analyst Daniel Ellsberg had secretly photocopied and passed to NYT reporter Neil Sheehan. The Papers, released during the Vietnam War, revealed the deep level of deception on the part of the government throughout the United States’ engagement with Vietnam.
While The Washington Post (and several other news outlets at the time) worked to get their own copy of the Papers, Bradlee and his team produced several articles based on the NYT‘s reporting.
Katherine’s Tough Decision
After Attorney General John Mitchell barred the NYT from further publishing the Papers — telling them they were violating the Espionage Act and jeopardizing U.S. defense interests — The Washington Post finally got their hands on their own copy.
After learning the identity of leaker Ellsberg, Washington Post national editor Ben Bagdikian went to Boston and obtained 4,4000 photocopied pages of the Papers. Though it was an incomplete set (the original report was nearly 7,000 pages) the news team quickly began studying the documents and writing articles.
But this is where the trouble really began. The reporters and legal team clashed over whether they should publish or not. The Washington Post Company was in the middle of its first public stock offering. Being charged with a criminal offense could jeopardize not only this but losing television licensing deals to the tune of $100 million. Lawyers feared that because the NYT had been issued with a court order already, The Washington Post could face even harsher legal ramifications.
As Graham wrote in her 1997 memoir Personal History, she was hosting a party and in the middle of making a toast when she was called to the phone to make the final decision. After consulting with both sides, she told her team “Let’s go. Let’s go publish.”
The Deed Is Done
The Washington Post published their first article on the Pentagon Papers on June 18. Days later, the Justice Department warned the paper that it had violated the Espionage Act.
Much like the NYT, The Washington Post refused to stop publication.
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The Court’s Response
The Supreme Court agreed to hear The Washington Post and NYT cases together on June 26.
Four days later, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision that supported the papers’ right to publish, finding that the government had not adequately proved that publication was a danger to national security — a victory for freedom of the press.
The decision not only bolstered The Washington Post‘s standing but also ensured trust in Graham as a publisher.
The Post opens Dec. 22.