When press freedom made it to Hollywood

by Sophie Albers Ben Chamo

Press Freedom is the hero of Steven Spielberg's new movie "The Post". The Golden Globes just awarded two investigative journalism NGOs with one million dollars each. ECPMF talked to Liz Hannah, author of the "Post" script, about press freedom's past and future and its great hope.

The Post Meryl Streep an Tom Hanks in "The Post" - Hollywood's exhilarating stance on press freedom (copyright: Universal Pictures International)

Press freedom made it to Hollywood. In Spielberg's "The Post" it shines as brightly as Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. At the Golden Globes Awards the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) announced two grants of $1 million each to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Committee To Protect Journalists.

It’s rare that the serious work of NGOs meets the glamour of the movie world, and that is definitely a sign of the times we live in: "We know the press is under siege these days," Oprah Winfrey said at the Globes Gala when she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award. “We also know it's the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.”

“There's never been a more important time to safeguard the truth by supporting investigative journalism,” said ICIJ director Gerard Ryle thanking the HFPA. “We are extremely grateful to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for its great expression of support for the ICIJ and for the important work being done by the Committee to Protect Journalists."

Spielberg's "The Post" is an exhilarating reminder of this important work. The star-studded film tells the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, when the Nixon administration tried to supress media freedom. And the powerful politicians’ words and threats sound awfully familiar. 

ECPMF spoke to Liz Hannah, the woman who wrote the script, her first screenplay.

Was the reality of the script overtaken by the reality of the real world? Don't you feel run over by the actual events?

I sold the script 10 days before the [US-]election [in 2016] and so it was something that happened in congruity with that. We wanted to tell a story about a woman finding her voice, about the importance of embracing the fear that happens in anyone’s life when you’re faced with big decisions, and we wanted to tell a story about the truth and the importance of the truth. The crazy thing was then to watch over the next month these three things continue to come into the forefront of national and international conversations.

Are you yourself surprised by the timing?

I was constantly surprised. I never thought that anything that was a parallel to now would be about an attack on the free press! I didn't saw this coming. And now during the summer, the #meetoo movement and #TimesUp... again I didn’t see women again having to assert ourselves, because we have asked ourselves so many times: 'Do we have to do it again?' We did. And we have to. Those are things that I never thought we would have to talk about again and we continued to have to talk about again.

We live in the most free societies in the world, what went wrong that we have to fight for press freedom again? 

I think history is cyclical, and I think there are times in history when you can be complacent: everything seems to be working out, everything seems to be going well and you stop poking, you stop nudging. I think that’s what happened. We stopped nudging. We stopped asking the really hard questions.

Liz Hannah "The Post" screenwriter Liz Hannah, 32, moved from New York to Los Angeles and hit the jackpot (copyright Twitter @itslizhannah)

We are doing too well?

Not too well, we got complacent. It got too easy. In 1971 they had just gone through Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, two historically complicated, but at the time amazing democratic presidents. Then came Nixon and that was very complicated. I don’t think we did anything wrong. I think history has a way of repeating itself. History has a way of reminding you: 'Hey, I am here, this is what happened, pay attention to me, because you gonna learn from that.'

Hopefully. It doesn't look like it.

I hope people learn. I think that is the greatest gift of history. History is the best storyteller, the best compass, because all our lessons have already been learned. You just have to look back.

What is the biggest change in journalism since back then?

We spent so much time in the film with the printing press. In that time it took a 100 people and a number of humungous decisions from multiple people down the line to make the news come out. Today you just hit a button. You can put 140 characters into the world in one tweet. Anyone can be a reporter. Anyone can report what they think the news is. I think that’s the biggest change. But for me the greatest thing of last year is watching the Washington Post and the New York Times do what they are doing, because they have been asking the hard questions, they have been poking the bear, they have been looking for the truth. I don’t think that has changed. Those values of journalism, of the free press, of the fourth estate, are still present and still accounted for, trying to be appreciated in the world.

Do you think people will come back to understand that journalism is a craft?

It’s actually amazing to see that in the last year journalism schools [in the US] have seen an incredible increase in attendance. I think it’s wonderful that really young people are watching what is going on in the world and saying: 'How do I change it. I wanna go and be part of the conversation. I don’t want to stand by and just let it happen.' And they are going to learn how to do that: the First Amendment, telling the truth, verification.

Do you think one day whistleblowers won’t be considered as criminals?

People like Daniel Ellsberg [whistleblower on the Pentagon Papers] were willing to go to prison for the rest of their lives to end the [Vietnam] war. He and his wife actually, she was the one who told him that he had to do it. And they were willing to sacrifice their time together and his freedom to end this war. I don’t know if there is anything more admirable than that.

Are you optimistic about the future of press freedom?

I am very hopeful. Because I think you have to get the truth out there, You have to talk about it. We can’t ignore what is happening in the world, we can’t act as if it’s not happening. I think we are all present now, we are all aware, and that’s what I find hopeful.

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