In Top Secret, audiences watch as the Washington Post‘s managing editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham reject their lawyer’s advice to hold off one day on publishing Pentagon Papers material and approach the government to allow officials an opportunity tell them what information from the Papers might be most damaging and necessary to keep secret.
In two recent talkbacks following Top Secret performances, however, the current managing editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post shared with audiences behind-the-scenes stories of how their papers did just that:Â ie, approach the government for just such a conversation prior to publishing two of the most important recent news stories that revealed secret, security-related government programs.
In a talkback on March 6, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson shared the story of that paper’s decision to publish its 2005 stories on the NSA wiretapping program. Rather than publishing those articles without informing the government about its information, as was done with the Pentagon Papers, Abramson described how her paper, after uncovering the program, went to the government for comment and, thereafter, listened to government officials’ requests that the paper not make this program public — including a request made directly to her by then-President George W. Bush. Abramson’s paper eventually did publish its story and make this information public.
Marcus Brauchli, managing editor of the Washington Post, described a similar series of events surrounding that paper’s 2005 stories regarding secret CIA-run prisons, called “black sites,” in European countries.
Does the fact that these papers sought pre-publication comment from the governmentÂ represent a retreat from the position of the Post and the Times at the time of the Pentagon Papers’ publication? Or instead, is it that the Times and the Post were enabled to take this responsible approach to publication only because the court precedent in the Pentagon Papers case made it so the papers knew that the ultimate decision to publish was theirs, even if the government requested continued secrecy?
Listen to Abramson – along with fellow panelists Carl Bernstein, legendary investigative reporter; Norm Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer, Bloomberg L.P.; and Geoffrey Cowan, Top Secret playwright and Director, Center on Communication Leadership & Policy – here:
And listen to Brauchli – along with fellow panelists Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Correspondent, ABC News; Tim Weiner, Pulitzer prize-winning Journalist and Author, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA; and Carroll Bogert, Associate Director, Human Rights Watch – here: