Washington Post op-ed on Press Disclosure and the Media as a Counterpoint to Government

In this op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel (editor of the Nation) invokes the Pentagon Papers to ask questions about the role and effectiveness of newspapers today in using government information critically, especially as a means to critique the government.  Comparing the super-structure governing the press at the time of the Pentagon Papers events to the structure of media today, she notes:

It is worth wondering whether News Corp. or Disney, Time Warner or General Electric would take the same risk that Times publisher Arther Ochs Sulzberger took with the Pentagon Papers and expose the government that taxes, regulates and monitors them.

Noting that today, a leaker of something like the Pentagon Papers could just publish such material on the web (and indeed, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg has said he would do just that), vanden Heuvel asks whether the internet can do what the media might not, but has her doubts.  As she puts it:

Can the Web fix the problem? In her three-and-a-half-star review of the Ellsberg documentary, The Post’s Ann Hornaday keenly observes: ‘Contemporary Web-centric media culture, with its proliferation of voices and reigning ethic of decentralization, makes everything equally important and unimportant, with each bit and byte of information just another bee to be herded, heeded or tuned out. Had the Pentagon Papers first been published on the Web, one wonders, would they have been all the more easily marginalized or ignored?’ Indeed.

So vanden Heuvel concludes that the press may have a unique ability to get the public’s attention in a way that the web does not, and therefore calls on the press to increase its courage in challenging the government and channeling public attention.

Is vanden Heuvel correct in implying that had the Pentagon Papers been posted on the web, something would have been lost?  By leaking them to newspapers around the country, Daniel Ellsberg facilitated a media bonanza – as the courts moved to prevent one paper from publishing, the next started, leading to a rolling series of front page stories that demanded public attention over several weeks.

However, for each of those front-page stories to occur, a new newspaper had to make the decision to publish, risking legal and financial consequences (as dramatized in Top Secret).  Would the papers make the same decision today? Can non-traditional media like Talking Points Memo, the Drudge Report, or the Huffington Post command public attention as the New York Times and the Washington Post did at the time they published the Pentagon Papers?

UPDATE: vanden Heuvel continues the debate on the Nation editor’s blog here.

2 thoughts on “Washington Post op-ed on Press Disclosure and the Media as a Counterpoint to Government

  1. Interesting post. I think Vanden Heuvel’s right that there is a danger of information getting lost, and that in an era of internet hoaxes it is not enough to ‘self-publish’ information in its raw form online despite the wide distribution available. That is also precisely why journalism is valuable — today millions of pages of government documents are available online, but it’s the knowledge and experience of reporters that can let readers know what in that mountain of data is worth their time and attention. The Pentagon Papers themselves were 47 volumes, and it took 3 months for a team of skilled reporters who were experienced in the topic to synthesize and analyze the information so that it could be printed in a narrative form that would make sense to readers and have the impact that it did. Leakers also sometimes have their own motives and agenda and they may produce information selectively to suit those interests, but a skilled reporter will use her instinct, knowledge of sources, and background understanding to inform and contextualize potential leaks and use them according to her judgment. Vanden Heuvel has written about this issue in the past in The Nation, and there the question was the NSA wiretapping story: http://www.thenation.com/blogs/edcut/43492/print . While in 2010 she asks whether modern papers owned by large corporations would be willing to print the Pentagon Papers (which were exclusively historical materials that excluded information on sources and methods), we have the experience from 2005 in which the Times did publish a story describing a method of intelligence gathering that was ongoing and which the White House actively sought to suppress, albeit after having held the story for several months at government request. Maybe the reality is that in the post-Pentagon Papers world both the government and the press know that the information will be published and the question is whether there can be some functional cooperation to ensure that the publication influences without endangering. The fact that we have moved from fighting courtroom injunctions to actually engaging in give and take conversations indicates that both sides have developed a more nuanced set of tools to address these complex problems since 1972 — a positive trend long in coming.