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."
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 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 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.