[sixties-l] Pentagon Papers - Media Praise Ringing Hollow

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Date: Mon Jun 18 2001 - 15:42:13 EDT

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    Online Journal - http://www.onlinejournal.com

    06-16-01: Media Beat | Pentagon Papers - Media Praise Ringing Hollow

    By Norman Solomon

    June 16, 2001

    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

    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

    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."

    Meanwhile, farther 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 government accountable."

    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.

    High-profile reporters 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

    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

    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 establishment."

    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 book "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media"
    won the 1999 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution
    to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, presented by the National
    Council of Teachers of English.

    Norman Solomon's archived columns may be found at

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