A few days ago I watched, with a bit of nostalgia, Steven Spielberg's movie “The Post.” It tells the story of the publication by first The New York Times, then The Washington Post, of the Pentagon Papers, the secret documents revealing the lies of successive U.S. governments regarding the country's engagement in Vietnam. I was in the United States in the summer of 1971 when that happened. I followed with interest the newspapers' troubles with the Nixon administration, which wanted to stop the publication. I admired their courage and their independence. I also saw the film as a metaphor for present times. It is impossible not to think of Donald Trump's attacks against the same two newspapers. Spielberg said that he made this film because of Trump's behavior. He believes that "Trump's war on the media is 10 times more powerful than Nixon's."*
The film also reflects very current issues here and in the United States: press relations with political circles and links to the financial world. At the heart of the story is the problem of journalists' sources and their confidentiality. In fact, the true hero of this story is Daniel Ellsberg, the so-called first whistleblower, who transmitted the Pentagon's secrets (and lies) to the newspapers. The question of sources is being raised again this week in the case of the trial of ex-ministers Marc-Yvan Cote and Nathalie Normandeau.** Without guaranteed confidentiality, journalists' sources will dry up and public knowledge will suffer. The promise of confidentiality in turn requires journalists to make sure that their sources are credible and motivated solely by public interest. Still, we have to know how to define the public interest.
The film shows the importance of big newsrooms and teamwork, the solidarity that unites journalists in difficult moments. The very existence of these big newsrooms is threatened today by the financial difficulties that traditional media, jostled by social networks and diminishing revenues, are experiencing. Job losses add up. Here, the media and journalists are asking for the state's help, in the name of a threat to democracy. This is not at all exaggerated. Information about city affairs, necessary for democratic life, is only one kind of media content. It's the production and the dissemination of this information that must be safeguarded. That is what justifies state intervention. But who will specify the nature of this intervention, and how is it to be done?
Well Away from Power
The all-out offensive that the media and journalists have been leading for months to obtain emergency government intervention demonstrates an annoying unanimity. The press must ensure that the economic and political issues creating the crisis and state intervention are subject to the same critical scrutiny as other current issues. With rare exceptions, this isn't the case. Some soul-searching is needed. Does information always have a market value? Is it still possible, except for niche markets, to profit from it? Do existing businesses have a future? Shouldn't we instead be interested in new methods? Is information about public affairs becoming the state's responsibility? State aid, undoubtedly essential in the short term, must be bound by precise and known rules, and must avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. It is important to keep journalistic work well away from power.
Let's return to Spielberg and “The Post” by recalling the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, quoted at the end of the film, and whose import, still current, is universal: "The press was to serve the governed, not the governors." This requires independent journalists and press who are perceived as such. The crisis in newspapers and traditional media is not only financial. It's also a crisis of confidence.
In the United States, the increasingly visible political sympathies of some media and the resulting social divide is changing the game and undoubtedly contributing to the current decline in confidence in the media, as well as other institutions. If it remains higher here, the credibility rating of the media and journalists is not good either. Perceptions of overly tight relationships between the media and power also exist and are poisoning the climate. Showing the same independence from political and financial circles that the owner of The Washington Post showed nearly 50 years ago could help to restore some of that lost luster. It goes without saying, however, that “The Post” is a movie!
*Editor’s Note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
**Editor’s Note: Former Deputy Premier Nathalie Normandeau, Marc-Yvan Cote and several others were arrested by an anti-corruption unit in Quebec in 2016 after an investigation into the exchange of political financing for public contracts.