The Steven Spielberg movie, “The Post,” chronicles efforts by The Washington Post, owned by Katharine Graham, to publish the Pentagon papers exposing government dishonesty in the Vietnam War. A central character in the movie and the real-life saga was Ben Bagdikian, the intrepid reporter who wrote about the papers.
What happened to Ben Bagdikian? Where is he now? Bagdikian is deceased. He died at the age of 96 in 2016, according to The New York Times. In its obituary on Bagdikian, the Times called him a “journalist and news media critic who became a celebrated voice of conscience for his profession, calling for tougher standards of integrity and public service in an era of changing tastes and technology.” He was living in Berkeley, California when he died.
In its own obituary for Bagdikian, The Washington Post lauded his role in the publication of the Pentagon papers, which the government fought tooth-and-nail to keep hidden. “During his tenure as national editor of The Washington Post in the early 1970s, Ben H. Bagdikian embarked on two secret missions under very different circumstances. First, he obtained the Pentagon Papers for The Post, physically delivering them to the home of then-editor Benjamin C. Bradlee,” reported the Post, noting, as the movie also shows, that “publication of the papers ultimately resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision concerning freedom of the press.”
The Post explained that this was far from the only courageous journalistic move made by Ben Bagdikian. “Months later, Mr. Bagdikian went under cover in a maximum-security prison, passing himself off as a murderer for a Post investigative series,” wrote The Post.
The movie drama stars Tom Hanks as Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Graham, who morphs from a “lady who lunches” and throws patio parties for top government officials, to the steely owner whose gutsy decision to publish might have led to her company’s ruin. Bagdikian is played by actor Bob Odenkirk (many viewers know him as Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad).
The conscientious Bagdikian is far cry from the slippery Goodman. “He plays Ben Bagdikian, the Washington Post reporter who wrote about the Pentagon Papers, the secret government assessment of the country’s chances in Vietnam, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971,” noted Newsweek of Odenkirk, quoting him as saying he enjoyed playing Ben Bagdikian because “I relate to getting to be the voice of your basic principles.”
The Nation notes that, after the Pentagon Papers courageousness, Bagdikian went on to become a media critic who focused on raising concern about media monopolies. “Those of us who have built our own critiques of contemporary media upon the foundation that Bagdikian provided with his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, have always recognized that the genius of this Pulitzer and Peabody Award-winning journalist was not in his charting of the steadily increasing control of communications by a handful of conglomerates,” reported The Nation. “It was in the understanding Bagdikian provided about the danger that was inherent in allowing the dominance of the discourse by a handful of wealthy and self-interested corporations.”
“Well the media is increasingly owned by a few very large multinational corporations. By the media, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, television and radio. This is growing,” Bagdikian told Frontline. “…And what we’re seeing in the media now is a decrease in hard reporting as a proportion of the whole, and an increase of soft entertainment features – which are the least expensive to produce and the most revenue producing.”