By Lee Foster
I saw The Post recently, and wish I could have shared it with you. It’s well done, and I recommend it. It’s about the Pentagon Papers, as you probably know, and the stars are the New York Times and the Washington Post.
It is a story of risk, folks willing to lose their fortunes and go to jail to expose the truth, the eternal struggle of freedom of speech vs national security secrecy, etc. It’s also a story about mere human beings, and how friendships and loyalty factor into our decisions, and about deciding when prudence vs going-for-it is the wisest course in our lives.
I have many thoughts and personal experiences about this from the 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s.
The movie took me back to my earlier decades:
In the 1990s I wrote/photographed a lot for the New York Times and the Washington Post.
I remember going to the 9th floor of the New York Times offices in NY to meet the changing travel editors and the eternal photo editor, Ursula Mahoney, who was buying a lot of my images. For three years I wrote an annual “special section” stand alone insert for the New York Times Travel Section on “travel and the internet,” a subject on which I had expertise.
The editorial room in the movie The Post looked like the editorial room of the New York Times in the 1990s. The same crusty, abrupt, well-educated, word-appreciative folks were there. Budgets were strong. As a freelancer, I was well compensated.
In the 1980s I did a lot of “investigative reporting” subjects, parallel to the Pentagon Papers, and had a major outlet, a hot magazine of the era called New Times (also in New York).
They liked my work and gave me carte blanche, as long as the story was controversial or outrageous. I would be at their office in a skyscraper in NY and these seasoned editors would open their checkbooks and say, “Go for it. How much do you need?” I covered the Jonestown Massacre, Suicide Off the Golden Gate, The Body Freezers of Berkeley, and The Patty Hearst Kidnapping, among many subjects.
I covered investigating these events with writing and photos. I was also well positioned editorially in Europe, with my Dutch connection with Neue Revu. They would take my article/photo packages and then distribute them through the Rob Brijker Agency to all the major language markets in Europe, especially Germany. I had a distributor in Japan. I earned money helpful to my family (three children headed to college) in this process.
However, other aspects about investigative reporting arose, causing me to pause in that direction.
Across the property line from our house at 6774 Manor Crest in Oakland lived a firebrand progressive attorney. He represented the Black Panthers. Huey Newton and such folks would arrive in limos at his place for consultations. One day he disappeared and was never heard from again. This was sobering. How much “investigative” reporting did I want to pursue?
Another aspect of the movie The Post is the threat of being sued, and how this could ruin you. In the 1980s two investigative reporters published in the Chronicle their expose about a psychiatrist for fraudulent practices. It was a big deal. The psychiatrist sued. The Chronicle did not support them, saying they were freelancers. They got slammed in a personal financial liability judgment. Would I also get sued for my investigative reporting?
The Post hinged on a do-or-die Supreme Court case. Would the Supreme Court rule to protect government secrecy or freedom of the press? In the 1970s my dad, Russell Gordon Foster, a manufacturer in Minnesota, won in an important Supreme Court case. A loss would have ruined him.
My dad’s case got written up in a New Yorker article, as a David and Goliath matter. My dad was a manufacturer in Minnesota. He could manufacture board games, among other things, and distribute them nationally. He was always on the lookout for a new board game. Board games were a popular pastime in that era.
Dr. Ralph Anspach, a professor in Berkeley, CA, had info that Parker Bros had stolen the game Monopoly from Clarence Darrow, the inventor. There were issues, but a case could be made.
Anspach said he had every right to use the term “monopoly” and he developed a game, Anti-Monopoly. He needed a manufacturer. My dad decided to partner. They published. Parker Bros sued and threw a cluster of attorneys and secretaries into the effort.
My dad and Anspach were little guys, but they had some of the first computer programs for word processing and database management (today’s Word and Excel). From my dad’s cottage at Lake Washington in Minnesota they mounted their defense. With their new technology, the were able to counter the blizzard of paperwork that Parker Bros threw at them in the legal process.
For a few years, the case climbed its way through the courts. After a lower court issued an injunction in favor of Parker Bros to stop the publishing, an appeals court allowed the continuation of publishing. Then a higher-level appeals court required burying all the product not yet sold. Then the case got to the Supreme Court of the U.S. For my dad and Anspach, it was do-or-die. They were deeply in legal debt, perhaps for up to a million, for all the legal fees.
The Supreme Court said justice was on the side of my dad and Anspach. But the two of them were weary by that time and my father was in ill health. They had those huge attorney fees to pay. Parker Bros offered them a settlement that exceeded their legal debts and offered some justice money. Parker Bros wanted to buy the rights to the game and bury it forever. My dad and Anspach had won, but were exhausted. They accepted the offer.
I still have my legacy copy of the Anti-Monopoly board game. See the image.
The movie The Post brought back all these memories—my publishing with the New York Times/Washington Post, investigating reporting and its risks, and my dad narrowly escaping getting crushed in the Supreme Court.