Panelists at two recent TOP SECRET TALKS events reflected on how the events depicted in Top Secret required what they saw as acts of courage by the Washington Post leaders depicted in the show, commenting that perhaps this same courage was less common among the press and the public today.Â Tracing this theme back to the originator of the leaked Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, and the process by which he decided to leak the Papers perhaps helps explain the changing times.Â What do you think?
UPDATE: Audio Recording of 2.28.2010 and 3.2.2010 Discussions Now Available:
Following the Feb. 28th performance, brothers Orville and Jonathan Schell drew on their deep knowledge of journalism to reflect on the unique story told in the show. First, Jonathan Schell noted that, to him, the Post‘s publication of the Papers resulted from decisions by a series of courageous individuals starting with the front line reporters:Â When faced with the possibility that the Post would decline to publish the Papers story, senior reporter Chal Roberts threatened to resign.Â This threat inspired a similar one from editor Ben Bradlee, and both threats were communicated to the Post‘s publisher Katharine Graham, which Schell saw as helping to catalyze her own display of courage in ordering the paper to publish.
Orville Schell noted several structural factors that made it harder for reporters today to exercise such independent acts of protest. Citing what he called the failure of the competitive market in journalism, Orville Schell noted that a resignation threat from most journalists today would ring false.Â Few papers today have a single person (like Graham) at the helm to whom a reporter, even one making a resignation threat could appeal, since the chain of command at most papers is now more diffuse.
In addition to these structural factors, however, Orville cited a decline a certain spirit of protest, wondering if perhaps young people, including younger reporters, have replaced the hope necessary for courage with a cynicism that you can’t really change anything. Noting what he perceived as a lack of critical interrogation by the media of the lead up to the Iraq War, Jonathan Schell also wondered whether it was a “feistiness” or “protest spirit” unique to the Vietnam era that allowed the events surrounding the Pentagon Papers publication to occur.
After the March 2 Top Secret performance, actor Peter Strauss, who plays Ben Bradlee in the show, expressed a similar feeling.Â Strauss appeared on a panel along with other Top Secret cast members and NYTW casting director Jack Doulin.
After becoming familiar with the Post‘s story through his experiences in Top Secret, Strauss described feeling as if the press did a better job during the Pentagon Papers era challenging the government’s version of the lead-up to war.Â Like the Schells, he saw the press today as having repeated the government’s version of events, rather than challenging that version, prior to the Iraq War.Â In speaking about the contrasting approach of journalists, Strauss likened the courageous acts of the Post‘s journalists to the original act by Daniel Ellsberg in copying and distributing the Pentagon Papers in violation of his legal and other duties to his employers and the Defense Department.
This comment helpfully connected the threatened resignations and other decisive actions at the Post to the prior act of protest that gave journalists the opportunity to take action in the first place, Daniel Ellsberg’s illegal copying and distribution of the Pentagon Papers.Â When Ellsberg pressured the reporters to whom he gave the Papers to promise they would use them:Â Ellsberg was, in part, burdening the reporters to act as boldly as he did.Â So what inspired Daniel Ellsberg?
In The Most Dangerous Man in America, a Pentagon Papers documentary now in theaters, Daniel Ellsberg explains that he did see his copying and distribution of the Papers as an act of protest, and traces his inspiration for that act to what he saw as personal acts of courage displayed by draft resisters.Â Only after hearing one such activist describe how he was willing to go to jail to protest the war and stand up for his beliefs did Ellsberg come to grips with his own unease about the war, and begin to feel the spirit of protest deeply enough to violate the codes of secrecy that governed his career as a defense strategist.
Under this view of events, perhaps what is missing today is not merely a critical spirit of protest among journalists, but that same critical spirit among the larger public.Â But Ellsberg and the Post journalists made choices to act in protest only when directly confronted with the opportunity to protest not just in the abstract, but regarding events and actions within their sphere of control.Â At least under the version of events Ellsberg narrates in the current documentary, his act of protest was directly inspired by, not just a general spirit of protest, but actual acts of protest he saw in the larger public.Â Without a draft, the American public –even those who may wish to protest aspects of the current war in theory — are not engaging in actual acts of individual protest today.Â To those who wish to see more critical reporting from the press – what acts by the larger public might help inspire more activist reporting?