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.

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.

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).

Top Secret Blog Re-lauch!

Welcome to the newly-redesigned Top Secret blog!  Founded in 2007 and redesigned in 2010, this blog will report on Top Secret performances and related events and track news and policy developments tied to the themes raised by Top Secret.

News and commentary to be highlighted here will focus on government secrecy, press freedoms, classification and declassification of information, journalist ethics, and national security and the media.  Audio, interviews, and related content from Top Secret performances and discussions will also live here.  Posts on these themes from past years have been imported into this new blog format.

Top Secret will run at New York Theatre Workshop starting Feb. 24, 2010, with post-show discussions on twelve dates in February and March, starting Feb. 25.  Click here for show information and here for information on scheduled panel discussions.

Los Angeles Performance Finale

As Top Secret ended its final run at the Skirball Cultural Center, the Los Angeles Times published an excellent preview piece, and a later op-ed relating the Pentagon Papers episode to current events, and there have been a number of stories about the impressive slate of events held as part of the collaboration between Top Secret and Sunshine Week, including a panel that followed the March 13 performance, (which was replayed in radio form on KPCC-FM in Los Angeles on June 28). The dialogue after the final live performance was led by Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. Panelists were  David C. Kohler, former CNN general counsel who now is director of the Donald E. Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute and Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School, Los Angeles; and Marc Cooper, lecturer and associate director of USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism. “This partnership provides an exciting and creative new avenue to engage people in the discussion about how important it is to our democracy to protect people’s right to information,” said David Westphal, Washington editor for McClatchy Newspapers and co-chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee.” You can also view two of the post-show panels including John Dean and Bob Shear.  Sunshine Week is a national initiative that encourages discussions about the importance of open government and freedom of information led by ASNE. Additionally, two new books, one about Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell (which has been garnering attention and controversy), and one about the history of research at the  RAND corporation, will be sure to continue to provide insight into this historical period. UPDATE: The Boston Globe recently published an excellent op-ed from its former editor commemorating the anniversary of their publication of the Pentagon Papers.

‘Pentagon Papers’ Return to Washington Post

The theatre section of the Washington Post, the newspaper that itself is a key subject of Top Secret, published a glowing article and photo slide show about the play, as a precusor to the engagement at the University of Maryland, which featured a pre-show discussion that brought former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Daniel Ellsberg together for their first-ever meeting. The panel was moderated by American Journalism Review President Thomas Kunkel and the performance was attended by several key figures who were subjects of the play.This came after very successful events in Iowa,  critically-acclaimed performances (“It’s no Secret: these guys can act!”) in Sprinfield, Illinois and WashU, insightful panels in Columbia, Mo. (which will be rebroadcast and webstreamed on KBIA on March 9),  good reviews at UConn (hailing a “Top” notch performance), and an Asheville, N.C. peformance that was a source of lasting inspiration, as was the Wake Forest presentation, a recording of which was aired and web-streamed live on WFDD on Feb. 10. (the same day as the Sarasota, Fl. performance). The tour continues to Penn State on Feb. 13 and then on to California in March.

Spring Tour Kicks Off Strong

The Spring Tour of “Top Secret: the Battle for the Pentagon Papers” has begun with a comprehensive and exciting kick-off at Wake Forest University which is generating great ‘buzz’ , including a review calling it a “joy to watch” and an excellent column about the actress playing Katharine Graham. As part of that university’s “Voices of our Time” series, the performance will be accompanied by an address by Daniel Ellsberg, as well as radio broadcasts. The Wake Forest engagement will be followed by a two-day performance at the Diana Wortham Theatre in North Carolina, and then on to a great program at  University of Richmond Jan 22-23, which is being widely anticipated. There are also compelling events planned to accompany the performance on Jan. 28-29 at the University of Iowa, as well as mounting excitement for the Feb. 6 Concord, N. H. performance. Click here to read what audiences are saying about the play.

Leaks, Classified Docs, and Tell-Alls

As Washington fumes and demands answers in light of the leak of the destruction of the CIA “torture tapes“, the House, Senate, and Executive are all promising investigations, and are focusing the nation’s attention on the potential CIA abuses of the classification system and national archiving policies. Key texts in understanding the CIA and classification systems include Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes and Ted Gup’s Nation of Secrets (which was subject of a recent discussion).  These developments also come on the heels of more decisions favoring secrecy over transparency, such as the DOJ opinion that the Vice-President’s office is exempt from classification rules, and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s rulings will remain under seal. Meanwhile, former Nixon aide Egil “Bud” Krogh has released a memoir on “Integrity”, and Daniel Ellsberg is supporting other whistleblowers.

Nebraska Symposium Success

The University of Nebraska ‘Echoes of Project X’ Symposium was a huge success in Lincoln this week. Both pre- and post-production discussions were hosted by playwright Geoffrey Cowan and events included a discussion with former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, Thomas Jefferson Center director Robert O’Neil, UNL Journalism professor John Bender and UNL law professor Eric Berger. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus made remarks, and it was capped off by an address by Daniel Ellsberg. Video of the event is available here.