When they challenged
the power of the White House by claiming the right to publish the Pentagon
Papers, the nation’s two most influential newspapers took a laudable stand.
During the three decades since then, praise for their journalistic courage has
become a time-honored ritual in the media world.
Thirty years ago, the
New York Times and the Washington Post engaged in fierce legal combat with
President Nixon. The U.S. government got a temporary injunction to stop them
from continuing to inform readers about the contents of the Pentagon Papers, a
secret official study of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The legal battle
went on for 15 days — ending on June 30, 1971, when the Supreme Court ruled (6
to 3) in favor of the newspapers and the First Amendment. Publication of the
Pentagon Papers resumed.
In June 2001, pundits
have again applauded media stars in the historic drama. On CNN, liberal Al Hunt
declared that the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham and Benjamin Bradlee "are
the most significant publisher and editor of the last half century."
Conservative Robert Novak also paid homage: "There was a terrible effort by the
Nixon people to have prior restraint of a newspaper’s publication. … I
certainly credit Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham for fighting for the freedom
of the press."
north along the elite media corridor, columnist Anthony Lewis likes to extol his
bosses for their bravery. Five years ago, he wrote about "the decision that,
more than any other, established the modern independence of the American press
— its willingness to challenge official truth. That was the decision of the New
York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers." He added that "the episode had a
galvanizing effect on the press" — and now, "the spirit is there to hold
As the summer of 2001
began, Lewis was at it again, assuring readers that the Pentagon Papers marked a
profound transformation of American journalism: "What changed the attitude of
the Times and other mainstream publications was the experience of the Vietnam
War. In the old days in Washington the press respected the confidence of
officials because it respected their superior knowledge and good faith. But the
war had shown that their knowledge was dim, and respect for their good faith had
died with their false promises and lies."
In contrast to all the
talk about the glorious defeat of prior restraint, we hear very little about the
ongoing and pernicious self-restraint exercised by media outlets routinely
touted as the best there is.
and commentators like Hunt, Novak and Lewis are much too circumspect to mention,
for instance, the November 1988 speech that Graham delivered to senior CIA
officials at the agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where the Washington
Post publisher said: "There are some things the general public does not need to
know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take
legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to
print what it knows."
On an earlier occasion,
Graham recounted: "There have been instances in which secrets have been leaked
to us which we thought were so dangerous that we went to them [U.S. officials]
and told them that they had been leaked to us and did not print them."
During the 1980s, the
powerful publisher enjoyed frequent lunches with Nancy Reagan, often joined by
Post editorial-page editor Meg Greenfield. Graham comforted the president’s wife
while the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded.
Graham developed close
relationships with such high-ranking foreign policy officials as Robert
McNamara, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. But she has always denied any harm
to the independence of her employees at the Washington Post and Newsweek.
"I don’t believe that
whom I was or wasn’t friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our
publications," Graham wrote in her autobiography, published in 1997. However,
Robert Parry — who was a Washington correspondent for Newsweek during the last
three years of the ’80s — recalls firsthand experiences that contradict her
assurances. Parry witnessed "self-censorship because of the coziness between
Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures."
Among Parry’s examples:
"On one occasion in 1987, I was told that my story about the CIA funneling
anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua’s Catholic Church had been watered down
because the story needed to be run past Mrs. Graham, and Henry Kissinger was her
house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that
the story as written might cause some consternation." Overall, Parry told me,
"the Post-Newsweek company is protective of the national security
With key managers at
major news organizations deciding what "the general public does not need to
know," the government probably won’t face enough of a media challenge to make a
restraining order seem necessary.
Norman Solomon’s latest
book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on
media and politic