Huffington Post calls Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers an “Important Stage Documentary”

In this review on the Huffington Post, David Finkle contextualizes the current New York Theatre Workshop peformance of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers within the recent ascent of staged documentaries, noting:

. . . we’re living in the age of the stage documentary. . . . The intent behind these stage documentaries is to inform audiences on the truth behind significant events while appearing to be more entertaining than actual newsroom accounts.

About Top Secret, Finkle highlights several “nuggets” found in the show that “the concerned citizen doesn’t want to be without,” including:

. . . [the] story of how The Washington Post, under the command of publisher Katharine Graham (Kathryn Meisle) and editor Ben Bradlee (Peter Strauss), sought successfully to obtain a copy of the purloined artifact and to publish its contents after The New York Times had been stopped by court order.

. . .

[the story of] a court case won as the direct result of the astonishing memory of Post reporter George Wilson (Matt McGrath) . . . [and] Bradlee’s determination to get his hands on the Pentagon Papers and to publish as much of it as he and staff warranted vital for readers’ enlightenment.

Although noting that Post editor Bradlee supported publication in part, of course, protect the public’s right to know, Finkle is also finds informative the play’s dramatization of Bradlee’s other compelling motivation: to defeat the “humiliation of being scooped by The New York Times on what was essentially a Washington story.”

As Finkle says:

He was going to find a way to right the imbalance, and he did. In other words, in his campaign there’s the element of “boys with their toys.” Intriguingly, that’s not too far removed from the king-of-the-mountain games being played by Nixon and his coterie in the Oval Office. And just maybe those apparently unavoidable male inclinations explain why the situations leading to the Pentagon Papers disclosures served in no way as a deterrent in, say, the George W. Bush administration, where men at their power maneuvers thought little or nothing of lying as a means to justify their long-planned ends.

While applauding it for raising these important questions and modern day resonances, Finkle claims that documentary theater is not really “theater.”  As he puts it: “Although billed as plays, these theatrical entries aren’t that. They’re news reports outfitted with theatrical accoutrements. . . ”

What do you think?  Is a documentary play based on real events and transcripts, with actors portraying real people, not really a “play”?  Why or why not?

Finkle notes The Exonerated as another recent documentary “play” in this genre.  Exonerated creators Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen will join Top Secret playwright Geoffrey Cowan and Tectonic Theater Project member and co-creator of The Laramie Project Greg Pierotti for a talkback following the Friday, March 12 performance of Top Secret. Perhaps they can explore this question.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers Performance and Discussion Celebrating Leroy Aarons

The Sunday, March 7 performance of Top Secret was followed by a panel discussion honoring the late Leroy Aarons, a Washington Post reporter and bureau chief and founder of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) who was also one of the co-creators of Top Secret.

Click below to hear the audio from Sunday’s post-show discussion.

Audio: Top Secret 03.07.10 Caldwell, Kaiser, Miller, Alba Panel Discussion

Oriol R. Gutierrez Jr. of the NLGJA posted this reflection on Sunday’s performance and discussion, including the following reflections on Leroy Aarons and on Sunday’s event:

Leroy Aarons, the late founder of NLGJA, was a man of many talents. He fused his interest in the theater with his expertise as a news man by co-authoring the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” with Geoffrey Cowan, who most recently was dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

Originally a radio play on NPR, it has been adapted for the stage at LA Theatre Works. In collaboration with New York Theatre Works in the East Village of Manhattan, it is making its first off-Broadway run through March 28.

A special sold-out matinee performance was held on Sunday, March 7, in honor of Roy. Joshua Boneh, Roy’s partner, was in attendance, as were many of Roy’s family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

A panel discussion was held after the performance to discuss Roy’s legacy. Esteemed journalist and author Charles Kaiser, one of the founding members of the New York chapter of NLGJA, was one of the panelists.

. . .

Wonderful acting made sure a good time, as they say, was had by all, capped off by a gathering at a local wine bar after the performance for those in attendance.

I strongly encourage NLGJA members to see this play. It’s a testament to Roy’s talents, but it’s much more than that. It’s a reminder of the important role that the news industry plays in our democracy.

Sunday’s post-show discussion at NYTW featured several people with distinct perspectives on Leroy Aarons and his work.  Earl Caldwell, a renowned former New York Times journalist and contemporary of Aarons, is currently the Scripps Howard endowed professor of journalism at Hampton University and host of the “Caldwell Chronicle” radio program.  Caldwell, who was the first black journalist to write a regular column in a major daily newspaper, also played a unique role in journalistic history, when his refusal to disclose the sources his New York Times reporting on the Black Panthers was one of three cases considered by the Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972).

Also on the panel was Charles Kaiser, Author, Full Court Press and Founder and Former President, NLGJA NY Chapter.  Kaiser is a renowned commentator on gay issues in the media.

Also participating in the discussion was Rebecca Miller, who acted in the Golden Globe nominated 2009 Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby.  Prayers for Bobby was based on a book by Aarons which told the true story of a religious, suburban mother struggling to accept her son after she finds out he is gay.  Miller described the numerous emails and letters the cast of the film recieved from teenagers and families across America who received help from the film in working on issues within their own families and community.

Monica Alba, a recent USC graduate, also spoke, describing the impact of a USC journalism course Aarons designed to introduce journalism students there about reporting on sexuality and gender identity.

**Note: In the post-show discussion Sunday, an audience member spoke about a July, 1967 article Aarons wrote for the Post about events in Plainfield, NJ that month that included riots and the death of a policeman.  Click here for access to that article, in which Aarons describes the successful efforts of Donald McDonald, a black NJ government employee, to stave off further violence.

Publishing Secret Government Information Today: Managing Editors of NY Times and Washington Post discuss current practices following performances of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

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:  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 government  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:

Audio: Top Secret 03.06.10 Abramson, Bernstein, Pearlstine Panel Discussion

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:

Audio: Top Secret 03.04.10 Brauchli, Ross, Weiner, Bogert Panel Discussion

Contextualizing the Pentagon Papers Publication with Todd Gitlin, Steve Wasserman, and David Rudenstine

In a talk following the March 3 performance of Top Secret, Professor Todd Gitlin of Columbia and Steve Wasserman of NYU’s NY Institute for the Humanities, built on the themes discussed in the below post regarding seeing the publication of the Pentagon Papers as an act of courage or protest.

In the talk, Wasserman tied the publication of the papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post to the larger acts of protest going on against the Vietnam War at the time, including prior publication of leaked documents and information by more radical “alternative” presses against which, Wasserman theorized, the Times and the Post were in competition to break news of the stories behind the war.  Wasserman described this spirit of protest as a “tide that lifted all boats,” leading to the Times and Post‘s publication.

Gitlin went further, contextualizing Ellsberg’s leaking of the Papers and the Times and the Post‘s acts of publication, not only within the anti-war movement, but within the larger spirit of protest that captured the nation and inspired many of its journalists throughout the 1960s and 70s. Gitlin tied the spark of this protest spirit to the civil rights movement, through which many Americans saw a rupture between what they saw on the ground and  information they received from the government and authorities — a rupture that permitted them to challenge the received information and authority.

For more, check out Gitlin’s book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and listen to the audio of the March 3 talkback, which also features commentary on the court system and behind-the-scenes stories about the Pentagon Papers case from David Rudenstine, Sheldon H. Solow Professor at Cardozo Law School and author of The Day the Presses Stopped, a definitive and highly-detailed history of the Pentagon Papers case.

Audio Recording of 3.3.2010 Discussion Now Available:

Audio: Top Secret 03.03.10 Wasserman, Gitlin, Rudenstine Panel Discussion

Pentagon Papers Publication as Protest and the Changed Spirit Today

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.  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.  What do you think?

UPDATE: Audio Recording of 2.28.2010 and 3.2.2010 Discussions Now Available:

Audio: Top Secret 02.28.10 Schell Panel Discussion

Audio: Top Secret 03.02.10 Panel Discussion with Top Secret Cast

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:  When faced with the possibility that the Post would decline to publish the Papers story, senior reporter Chal Roberts threatened to resign.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  When Ellsberg pressured the reporters to whom he gave the Papers to promise they would use them:  Ellsberg was, in part, burdening the reporters to act as boldly as he did.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  To those who wish to see more critical reporting from the press – what acts by the larger public might help inspire more activist reporting?

Shrum, Cowan, Stephens Discuss Journalism about Government Secrets at First TOP SECRET TALKS Post-show Event 2/25

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:

Top Secret 02.25.10 Cowan, Shrum, Stephens Panel Discussion

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.  The discussion was moderated by Robert Shrum, veteran political consultant and author of No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.  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.  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.  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.  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 not  — but presented possibly differing interpretations on why that might be the case.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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 can‘t trust the government, you can‘t believe what they say and you can‘t rely on their judgment.”  To Stephens, the story of the Pentagon Papers “is a story about government cynicism.”  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.  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.  After the invasion, according to Shrum, members of the administration said they wished the Times had published the story.  Could the Times have made a better decision at the time?  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.  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.  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.

NYTW’s Top Secret Performance In Previews!

February 24th brought audiences the first preview performances of New York Theatre Workshop’s Spring 2010 presentation of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers.  Audiences young and old have been responding favorably to the opportunity to re-live or experience for the first time the human drama behind the publication of the Pentagon Papers.  The show features great performances from Larry Pine as Richard Nixon, Peter Strauss as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Kathryn Meisle as Post publisher Katharine Graham, Jack Gilpin as the Post‘s lawyer, and Matt McGrath as the Post‘s legendary reporter George Wilson, among many more.  James Gleason brings compelling emotion to the character of Judge Martin Peel, a composite of several judges who heard argument in the Pentagon Papers case.

Previews continue through March 7 and the show opens March 9 with performances scheduled through March 28.

Check out New York Theatre Workshop’s promotional video “How to Expose a Government Conspiracy” below to get in the mood, get your tickets here, and don’t forget to join us for one of the scheduled post-performance panel discussions!

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.

Top Secret Cast in NYC: Preparing for First Preview Feb. 24!

The Top Secret cast, which includes Kathryn Meisle as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Peter Strauss as Post managing editor Ben Bradlee is now in their final rehearsals at New York Theatre Workshop, preparing for their first preview performance Feb. 24.

Check out the New York Times listing here and Playbill’s announcement here! More show information.  See you on opening night!

USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy announces TOP SECRET TALKS Discussion Series

As reported here, USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) announced today the line-up for its upcoming TOP SECRET TALKS discussion series, a month-long series of conversations between leading journalists, policymakers, and scholars on the themes raised by Top Secret, to be presented in conjunction with upcoming performances at New York Theatre Workshop.  Geoffrey Cowan, Top Secret playwright, USC Annenberg dean emeritus and CCLP director describes the upcoming discussion series as follows:

“We hope that the series will engage New Yorkers in a lively and important dialogue as these issues [such as government classification and declassification of confidential information, and the tension between press freedoms and national security] continue to be debated on the national stage. . . . The courts have changed, technology has changed, the financial stability of the press has changed, and we live with a new fear of terrorism. But the issues endure.

CCLP’s full press release is available here.  More information and a list of scheduled TOP SECRET TALKS is posted here.  This blog will provide ongoing summaries and analysis of the TOP SECRET TALKS events as they occur, and will link to audio as it becomes available.  TOP SECRET TALKS events are open to the public and will take place at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (map).