The old Washington Post building. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Colleen O’Connor

History is listening. Government is lying. And the movies matter.

Two current movies —The Darkest Hour and The Post command your attention.

Not for the winning trifecta of Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in The Post or Gary Oldman’s Oscar-worthy acting in The Darkest Hour, but for the important lessons of history they offer.

It is The Post that emphasizes what happens when governments lie, repeatedly, to their people.

Think of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the “secret” wars in Cambodia and Laos, the “weapons of mass destruction” justification for the Iraq War, and the never-ending wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Lies are costly.

Both courage and transparency provide the antidote–most often provided by a free and healthy press. That and the history compiled in books and, yes, even movies.

The easiest way to experience the emotions, tensions and hostilities of an era is to watch a movie that remains faithful to the times. Both The Post and The Darkest Hour provide this and much more.

But, how are these relevant today?

Katherine Graham. Courtesy Library of Congress

Phil Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post and late husband of Katherine — the heroine in The Post movie — popularized the phrase “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” And the Post provided much of it during the famous Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon.

The man who transformed the Washington Post’s great competitor, the New York Times, was even more emphatic about his paper’s “public servant” mission.

In his will, Adolph Ochs called for the Times to be maintained “as an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, free of ulterior influence, and unselfishly devoted to the public welfare.”

The Vietnam War — as proven in the “classified” Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg — was decidedly not in the public’s interest. The papers’ demeaning conclusion was that the Presidents and military presiding over that war knew as early as 1966 that it was not winnable. Yet, they continued to lie to the American public.

When the Times was enjoined from publishing that truth in 1971, Katherine Graham—who risked jail and serious financial damage to her newspaper—defied the court, stepped up, and published the proof in the Post.

Thus, in one act of courage, she achieved both newspapers’ missions—a rough draft of history and fearless devotion to the public welfare.

This was a defining moment for Graham and the Post.  The paper was catapulted from a regional daily to one of international stature. And Graham started something of a revolution. Her own pushback #MeToo moment—from genteel to tough.

For her performance as Kay Graham, Meryl Streep will undoubtedly win another Oscar nomination. The latest New York Times review credits her with creating “an acutely moving portrait of a woman who in liberating herself helps instigate a revolution.”

And the San Diego connection?

Graham was a friend of Helen Copley, publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Both shared some common formative history—while being viewed as polar opposites politically.

Both were married to men who were the publishers their respective papers. Both were widowed, inherited the papers, and then faced the daunting task of women publishing in a male-dominated field.

Both women were also products of their times, the 1940s and 1950s. Both were socially gracious, initially non-combative, and surrounded by domineering male advisors.  For Graham, it was Ben Bradlee, perfectly captured by Tom Hanks in the film.

For Helen Copley’s 70th birthday party, Kay Graham flew out to be an honored guest. Dinner was at the posh Mille Fleurs restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe, followed by a surprise brunch the next day on Joan Kroc’s yacht.

Little known fact—the woman were so “sympatico” about their ownership responsibilities as publishers, that when The Post faced a costly pressmen’s strike—it was Copley who lent Graham some valuable help to weather the storm.

They came of age, as publishers, long before the country caught up to them as women.


Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.

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