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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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