The Pentagon Papers
by Normon Solomon
Z magazine, July/August 2001
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."
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, "the episode had a galvanizing effect on the press"-and
now, "the spirit is there to hold government accountable."
As summer 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
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 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
During the 1 980s, 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 1980s- 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.
and Media Control