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The truth about the Pentagon Papers – and why you should care

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as his boss, Katharine Graham, faced with a daunting news decision.
Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as his boss, Katharine Graham, faced with a daunting news decision. Associated Press

I have not yet gone to see the new Steven Spielberg film “The Post,” and I probably won’t bother.

Not that I don’t appreciate movies about heroic journalists fighting for truth and justice against a malevolent force doing all in its power to suppress those values, as this movie does.

David Klement
David Klement

After all, I served in a similar role for 45 years in my previous career, much of it at the Herald – well, maybe not always heroically, but I never, ever lost sight of the reason I toiled at daily newspapers all those years. It was for truth and justice, always.

But the reason I don’t much care to see “The Post” is that truth is missing in so much of its story – indeed, the very title is misleading. If it were faithful to the truth, the movie’s title would be “The Times,” and it would portray a different set of dogged reporters, crusty editors and gutsy publishers. That would be the staff of the New York Times getting proper credit for unearthing the Pentagon Papers instead of the Washington Post, who this movie leads viewers to believe did much of the legwork.

Image released by 20th Century Fox shows actress Meryl Streep, from left, director Steven Spielberg, and actor Tom Hanks on the set of "The Post." Spielberg’s newspaper drama has been named the year’s best film by the National Board of Review, which also lavished its top acting honors on the film’s stars, Streep and Hanks. Niko Tavernise 20th Century Fox via AP

The issue has special significance to me because of its importance to press freedom, and because one member of the Times reporting team was Hedrick Smith, who has become a personal friend since speaking at a forum I presented at St. Petersburg College in 2014 called “Who Stole the American Dream?” (Smith also has been a frequent speaker at the Sarasota Institute for Lifelong Learning.) The Times team won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Pentagon Papers, and Smith would go on to win a second Pulitzer a couple of years later for his reporting from Russia and Eastern Europe.

Why care?

OK, if you’re under 50 you may not know or much care about the Pentagon Papers. But you should. The Pentagon Papers were 7,000 pages of a top-secret study of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1968. The study was conducted by the Rand Corp. for the U.S. Department of Defense, at the behest of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

The study amounted to an exposé of the Johnson administration’s systematic lying about the war, both to the American public and to Congress. It revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War with the bombings of Laos and Cambodia and coastal cities of North Vietnam, none of which was reported in the press.

New York Times reporters, led by Smith and Neil Sheehan, holed up in a hotel room for months to digest the voluminous study and began publication of a series of front-page articles on June 13, 1971. But after three days, the Nixon administration’s Justice Department obtained a court injunction blocking further publication on grounds of jeopardizing national security. Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, fearing arrest of himself and his news team, ordered publication halted while his legal team filed appeals.

Graham and Bradlee in the real-life drama over the Pentagon Papers at the Washington Post, June 30, 1971. AP file photo

Only then did the original leaker of the documents, Rand Corp. employee Daniel Ellsberg, hand over a copy of the papers to the Washington Post. And this is where Post Publisher Katherine Graham, played in the movie by Meryl Streep, and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, come in. They, too, anguished over the risk of arrest over publishing, but – and I gather from reviews that this is the heart of the movie – decided to take the risk. After two days, the Post also was ordered to cease publication by a federal judge, and did so, while its lawyers prepared to go to court to challenge the injunction.

But as James C. Goodell reports in a Dec. 22 article posted on the Daily Beast, the Post had no legal expertise in arguing First Amendment cases, and did a poor job in defending its right to publish on First Amendment grounds. Goodell, who led the Times’ legal team, wrote that the briefs submitted by the Times “were voluminous, scholarly and knowledgeable about the First Amendment.

July 1, 1971: After getting the green light from the Supreme Court, The New York Times resumes publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon Papers. Jim Wells AP

The Supreme Court, in deciding 6-3 for the Times, relied exclusively on the Times brief.”

So relevant today

Everyone in journalism, including me, was closely watching this story unfold in the early ’70s, for we sensed its relevance to what we were doing. For it established a very high standard to justify pre-publication censorship, which would prove invaluable two years later when the Watergate scandal broke and the press – this time truly led by the Post – once again took on Nixon and his rubber-stamp Justice Department to expose high crimes and misdemeanors that reached into the Oval Office. One does not have to stress brain cells to see how relevant that decision is to today’s journalism practitioners reporting on a White House that at times makes Nixon’s seem tame by comparison.

ben bradlee
In real life, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee in the newsroom in an undated photo. AP file photo

All of this came rushing back to me as I was channel-surfing during the holidays. Pausing on PBS, I saw on the screen, in a close-up, none other than my friend Hedrick Smith. It was a re-broadcast of a 2009 documentary film about this issue, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.” That documentary, co-authored and co-produced by Rick Goldsmith, lays out a true account of the Pentagon Papers, not the Hollywood version now in movie theaters. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Go see “The Post” if you want – I hear Streep and Hanks are superb, as usual – but check out these posts first. And for a first-rate review, check out Anthony Lane’s review in the Dec. 18-25 New Yorker.

On second thought, perhaps I will see it, too. The reviews indicate this film is more about a gutsy woman standing up to power in a very-much-men’s world of editors, lawyers and politicians than the story line suggests. It’s a theme that has special relevance today – thanks in large part to powerful and amoral men in Hollywood and Washington, D.C.

David Klement is Executive Director of the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College and former Editorial Page Editor of the Bradenton Herald. Email: klement.david@spcollege.edu