The Pentagon Papers were, of course, the secret classified history of the Vietnam War conducted over many years by the Defense Department and leaked in 1971 to the Times, and later the Post, by Vietnam veteran and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
With the likes of Tom Hanks as then-editor Ben Bradlee, Meryl Streep as Post publisher Katharine Graham and Steven Spielberg directing, the film was nothing short of fantastic.
It told a great true story of how journalism is often needed -- then and now -- to uncover lies and deception at the highest offices of the nation. The movie, which I urge you to go watch, involves not only obtaining classified information, but disclosing what that classified information says.
In this case, the secret report revealed how the federal government had consistently lied to the American people about the war and the true difficulties that were being faced in battle and in opposition.
Like All the President's Men some 40 years earlier, which depicted the Post's uncovering of the Watergate scandal, this film is a great reminder of the need for a strong and demanding press. In both cases, the paper used secret sources to get the truth and faced public and legal battles from the White House.
For years, both the Times and the Post have rightly pointed to these stories as examples of their success and dogged reporting. The two remain among the top news sources in the nation and have in recent years done some of the best reporting on Donald Trump, as well as the recent sexual harassment and assault cases that could well see some more Pulitzer Prize honors in the coming months.
But at the same time, both have a black eye in their history of a different sort that might deserve similar cinema examination.
In the Post's case it is Janet Cooke, while the Times stumbled with Jayson Blair.
The revelation of deceit and falsifications by Blair eventually led to his firing and the resignations of Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd. It also sparked the creation of the paper's Public Editor, an ombudsman-type position that helped keep the paper on the right track for more than 10 years before being eliminated in 2017.
An Independent Lens 2014 documentary, A Fragile Trust, examined the Blair story quite well. But to date no other docudrama style film has been made.
And its been nearly 37 years since Cooke was forced to return a Pulitzer Prize for her false story, Jimmy's World, about a non-existent, eight-year-old heroin addict. The front-page story began to unravel after the award sparked demands to find and help the youngster.
When Cooke eventually admitted her journalistic sin, she was let go and then-executive editor Ben Bradlee offered to resign, but was kept on the job.
Interestingly, it was the internal reviews by both papers that helped repair their damaged reputations. The Times' Mother's Day report spanned four inside pages, while the Post ombudsman of the time, Bill Green, was credited with writing one of the most in-depth investigations and reviews of any news outlet.
The Post, which hired the first-ever newspaper ombudsman back in 1970, eliminated the position a few years ago.
|Cooke's resignation letter. Credit: Mike Sager|
You can include in that grouping Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning film from two years ago that highlighted how The Boston Globe broke the Catholic church scandal back in 2003. It won the Best Picture Oscar, while the reporting it was based on won the Pulitzer Prize.
But to look at the Cooke story or Blair's transgressions is important to remind people what can go wrong, and how these papers dealt with it and regained trust. A similar story was that of Stephen Glass, the fabricating writer from The New Republic who was the subject of the movie Shattered Glass after his fabrications were exposed in 1998.
A great lesson from that story was how the magazine disclosed his wrongdoing and bounced back with strengthened accuracy checks and new policies to guard against it in the future.
Of course, in the current anti-news frenzy there is a danger that many of those who scream "fake news" would use a Blair or Cooke flick to support their false claims. Still, it is a great opportunity to point out the need for such tight journalistic standards and the ability for newsrooms to admit mistakes and go about learning from them.
A Cooke film has been discussed and several scripts written, according to veteran producer Doug Wick, whose past work includes Gladiator and Working Girl. He still co-owns the rights to her story along with TV and film legend James L. Brooks, who's known for The Simpsons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Terms of Endearment.
"We're still interested in it and if suddenly there is a perfect actress who means something it helps get it done," Wick told me in a recent interview. "It has been tricky to get the script exactly right. You don't have that much leeway because it is a tragedy. We keep revisiting it and looking for the right opportunity and that's always about the right filmmaker, and we are circling it. We haven't exactly discovered the right version to make it a great movie."
One of those who has been involved in trying to get a film made is journalist Mike Sager, who worked with Cooke at the Post, briefly dated her and has been in touch ever since. He penned a lengthy GQ piece about her in 1996 and another in 2016 in Columbia Journalism Review. He also received a portion of the $750,000 rights fees along with Cooke, according to a 1996 Los Angeles Times story.
"I think she probably has a conflicted view of a movie coming out and is not proud of that time in her life and wishes it would just go away," Sager said in an interview. "I would love it to happen, but I haven't seen an indication that anyone is willing to pick it up and run with it. If they are, they are welcomed to find me."
As for Cooke, Sager said she remains somewhat secluded and has not done any interviews in years. She was unreachable for comment on the film idea.
Wick said one of the interesting parts of the story is the idea that Cooke was wrongly assumed to have "street cred" and connections because she was African-American.
"Because she is one of the few African-American reporters there is a stereotyping and misunderstanding of her skill set," Wick said. "The assumption that she somehow would create street cred, that she of course would be the person who would know who is shooting heroin in the street ... the complicity with the Post that because she was black somehow she would have access to the black culture, which she had not grown up particularly connected with at all."