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.Â 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.Â 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?Â 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).Â 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.