Following Top Secret‘s second preview performance on February 25, USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy presented the first in what will be a twelve-part discussion series regarding the contemporary questions raised by the play.
UPDATE: Audio Recording of 2.25.2010 Discussion Now Available:
This February 25th talk featured a lively discussion between Top Secret playwright, Geoffrey Cowan, who is a former Dean of USC Annenberg’s School of Communication and former director of Voice of America and Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism and communication at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and author of, among other things, A History of News.Â The discussion was moderated by Robert Shrum, veteran political consultant and author of No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.Â Shrum is now a Senior Fellow at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, which co-hosted the talk.
Shrum started off the discussion by noting that publication of the Pentagon Papers, and the Watergate scandal that soon followed, ushered in an era in American culture defined by a “presumption against secrecy,” during which the American public expected that most information about government operations would be publicly available.Â Given the events of 9/11 and our current war on terrorism, Shrum asked, has that “presumption against secrecy” and any corresponding openness in government eroded today?
Cowan agreed that threats of terrorism and other factors may be eroding this presumption, citing the the Obama administration’s recent actions in first agreeing and then declining to release so-called “torture photos” sought by the ACLU.Â The administration was criticized for appearing to “go back on” initial promises of increased transparency when it later supported Congress’s efforts to tighten the federal FOIA law to avoid any requirement to disclose the materials.Â Cowan noted, however, that a pull toward secrecy shouldn’t be associated with any particular administration, but rather is a natural tendency of those in power.
Shrum turned the discussion to a question brought into sharp focus by the events of Top Secret: whether and when journalists’ efforts to break through government secrecy can actually threaten national security.
Cowan and Stephens’ opinions here converged regarding whether journalism often poses a real threat to national security — concluding notÂ — but presented possibly differing interpretations on why that might be the case.Â Despite the alleged national security threat posed by publication of the Pentagon Papers, Cowan and Stephens agreed that almost no historical examples easily came to mind of stories published by the US press that actually caused a severe threat to national security.
In reflecting on this lack of examples, Cowan emphasized the possibility that journalists do often break stories that include secret or security-related information, but may find reporting tactics that make their stories less threatening such as voluntary withholding of stories until information is less threatening and sensitive reporting that reveals information only to the extent necessary to tell the story.Â As examples, Cowan pointed to the 2005 New York Times series that exposed the NSA’s involvement in a secret wiretapping program, which revealed this confidential program, but was held by the Times for over a year before its release, and to Dana Priest’s series on CIA “black sites,” which included sufficient detail on this program to influence public opinion while withholding the names of the particular countries involved.
The continued possibility for this kind of reporting was called into question by one audience member who, reacting to the dramatization of editorial and publisher’s discretion displayed in Top Secret, asked whether that kind of “curating” of journalism would be continued on blogs and other non-traditional media sources.Â The panelists noted that online media, while breaking some stories about politicians’ personal lives, also had yet to break a truly threatening national security story.Â When they have the chance, will they employ some of the tactics Cowan identified?
Stephens saw the lack of news stories threatening national security not as a sign of sophisticated reporting, but instead as a possible indication of timidity in the press about uncovering and disclosing government secrets.Â Stephens noted that very few articles in this list of the Top 100 Works of Journalism included revelations of or inquiry about government secrecy, and asked whether this may be because the press behaves too conservatively in the face of possibly secret information.
Shrum saw echoes of these concerns in the recent coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq war in which selectively leaked information painted a certain picture about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a picture which was not generally questioned in the media.
For Stephens, the theme of Top Secret was best embodied by a line said by H.R. Haldeman in the play’s second scene regarding the Pentagon Papers publication (a line actually said by Haldeman and recorded on Nixon’s White House taping system): “For the ordinary guy, all of this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing, which is: You canâ€˜t trust the government, you canâ€˜t believe what they say and you canâ€˜t rely on their judgment.”Â To Stephens, the story of the Pentagon Papers “is a story about government cynicism.”Â The material in the papers taught the reporters and then the public at that time to be cynical, and therefore, more challenging and critical of government, something which Stephens does not see as often today.
Stephens calls on the media to err on the side of challenging the government’s version of events.Â In slight contrast, Cowan’s recent examples of reporting that discloses secret programs in a manner that is sensitive to national security concerns implies that good journalism can often result from some trust and cooperation with the government.
Shrum recalled a story from the Kennedy administration when the New York Times had the Bay of Pigs story, but Kennedy officials convinced the Times not to publish.Â After the invasion, according to Shrum, members of the administration said they wished the Times had published the story.Â Could the Times have made a better decision at the time?Â And how would a paper, or the government make this decision today?
This story and the panel as a whole highlighted the importance of a balance between government secrecy and tough inquiry and investigation by the press.Â For journalists’ efforts to report sensitively to work, the press must also engage in the courageous and critical reporting Stephens seems to be looking for that will keep the government on its toes.Â If the government can expect press scrutiny, it will be more likely to make decisions that would withstand such scrutiny and merit the public’s trust if revealed and when the press and the public can put some trust in the government to make such decisions, then the public can trust a sophisticated press to cooperate with the government and report sensitive information in a way that doesn’t threaten national security.