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Four Takes: 50 years after the Pentagon Papers, does a free press still function?

One of the original sets of the Pentagon Paper, LBJ Library, Austin,TX, ROBERT DAEMMRICH PHOTOGRAPHY INC

June 27, 2021

Fifty years ago, on June 27, Daniel Ellsberg distributed his last remaining copies of what are now known as the Pentagon Papers, and prepared to be arraigned the following morning in a Boston courthouse. Two weeks earlier, The New York Times had begun printing a series of stories based on the documents, which constituted a 7,000-page secret history of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg had been identified as the likely source.

Today, the Pentagon Papers are known as much for their impact on press freedoms as for helping to end the war. However, in “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers,” Ellsberg primarily keeps his eye on events, vividly re-creating a tumultuous period. To his credit, Ellsberg did not rush to sell his story. “Secrets” came out in 2002, the year before the US embarked on war in Iraq. The book is worth revisiting for its contribution to the historical record; more vitally, it traces one man’s long reckoning with his conscience.

Commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, the Pentagon Papers presented a starkly pessimistic account of US involvement in Vietnam across five presidential administrations. As a high-level federal employee, Ellsberg contributed to the research. He came away astounded that for years, doubts of success underlined nearly every decision furthering engagement.

“Secrets” describes Ellsberg’s evolution from cold warrior and consummate insider to a man convinced that his country was committing war crimes. He strongly suspected that, like his predecessors, President Nixon would escalate rather than end the war.

Ellsberg first tried to air the incriminating documents through Congress. Yet, though he found a few sympathizers, no one was prepared to help. He contacted the Times.

The Pentagon Papers may go down as the most storied photocopying job in history. Along with constant fear of discovery, Ellsberg describes the sheer tedium of the process. Despite his best efforts, “Top Secret” kept popping up on individual pages.

Though the law was unclear, he worried that he could be imprisoned for life. (Noting improper government targeting of Ellsberg, a judge ended his criminal trial.)

The more consequential legal test took root when the Times obeyed a court order to stop publishing. Ellsberg quickly took copies of the secret history to other newspapers, including the Globe. Injunctions piled up. Finally, on June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court cleared the way for resumed publication.

At the heart of the Pentagon Papers decision lay a difficult balancing act: the government’s need to operate free from adversaries’ prying eyes versus the public’s right to know.

A provocative new essay collection, “National Security, Leaks and Freedom of the Press: The Pentagon Papers Fifty Years On,” edited by Lee C. Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone, addresses the state of affairs since the court’s landmark ruling. While acknowledging that the Pentagon Papers decision has functioned fairly well, the authors argue that changes in the media landscape and the government’s capacity to keep secrets cry out for an updated approach.

Currently, leakers of classified documents can be prosecuted, but media outlets may lawfully publish the materials — hence the occasional incongruity of alleged leakers idling in jail while journalists are celebrated with prizes.

In 1971, mainstream media such as the Times were generally viewed as responsible gatekeepers, willing to withhold details deemed harmful. Now, of course, in a world of digitized information, leakers no longer need a Xerox machine, or even the Times, to disclose rafts of government material.

Alan Rusbridger became editor in chief of The Guardian in 1995, just as this transformation was beginning. Though based in Britain, the paper entered the US market under his leadership, and in 2014 won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now,” Rusbridger describes a career that unfolded in tandem with what many have seen as the near-collapse of serious journalism.

In his present-day pilgrim’s progress, Rusbridger, much like Ellsberg before him, wrestles with the ethical dilemmas of getting valuable information to the public amid fears of being jailed. Absurdly, British officials demanding the Snowden files at one point smashed circuit boards in The Guardian’s London offices.

While newspapers the size of the Guardian have so far managed to survive in the digital universe, the same cannot be said for their smaller counterparts. Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post, deftly sketches these losses in “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.”

Noting that more than 2,000 US papers have ceased publishing since 2004, Sullivan argues that smaller newspapers may be even more important to the republic’s survival than those with a national audience. Yet a viable model for keeping these outlets alive remains elusive.

None of these changes were on the horizon when Daniel Ellsberg stood over a copy machine night after night. Like the secret history of the war, however, they point to grave challenges for democracy.

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