I recently watched the Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep film, The Post about the publishing of the secret Pentagon Papers regarding the Vietnam War in the Washington Post. The whole film centres on just a handful of days and yet so much happens. And so little.
“So much” because it occurs in a much less technologically-dependent period in history. “So little” because it occurs in a much less technologically-dependent period in history.
The leakers spend hours and hours painstakingly photocopying thousands of classified pages, one at a time. No paper feed on this model.
Each page is then hand-cut to remove the “Top Secret” designation at the bottom to protect the recipients. Apparently, a paper cutter was too cutting-edge.
We also see what could be the original email: telling a kid in the newsroom to deliver a message to another part of town. And to run. (Which he does.) Second generation email also appears in the form the vacuum tubes used at the newspaper to deliver paperwork to different offices.
And all this is done in secret – which means using anonymous, untraceable phones. And in the 70’s, that meant pay phones in a back alley. However, when one journalist is asked to use a different phone to call their source back, he just moves twelves inches to the right to call on the next pay phone down the row. What takes the most time is going through seven digits on a rotary dial phone.
If it happened today, the files would simply be downloaded onto a drive or emailed to a secret server and the movie would be over. Roll credits. And with the impossibly high speed of technology on current television shows, all the action (or inaction as everything’s done by computers) is even faster. So there’d be no story for Hollywood to tell.
In 2019, it’s too easy to spread a story or change a life. But in the 70’s, everyone had time to consider the ramifications of their deeds.
The Washington Post’s editor, Katharine Graham, had several hours to make her decision about whether to risk her empire by defying the U.S. government and Nixon, himself. She knew the journalists were still pouring over the pages, examining everything carefully before they ever wrote a word. Plus, sharing it with the world still required the process of type-setting, then the printing of the paper and finally, its delivery to newsstands.
Today’s journalists write and post the information as it arrives. Corrections and updates are continuously added as the story progresses. Even individuals can put anything out there without delay – or thought – through social media. Apologies are left for later.
Lack of technology certainly slowed things down back in the day. But it also ensured our brains kept up with our actions.
Which makes me think that perhaps things really were better back when email was a kid running through the streets and the spinning wheel on a rotary phone allowed people time to cool down before reaching our intended target.