A MAN drums his fingers on a cardboard box, held shut with twine, which takes up the seat beside him on a flight from Boston to Washington, D.C. “Must be precious cargo,” a flight attendant tells him. “It’s just government secrets,” he answers.
The man is The Washington Post assistant managing editor Ben-Hur H. Bagdikian, and in this scene from June 1971 he is 51 and a respected media critic, although still a dozen years away from publishing the book that would cement his reputation as one. Here, the movie that is “The Post” veers away from the true events as told in The Washington Post. It wasn’t a flight attendant who tried to find out what Bagdikian thought so valuable that he couldn’t bear to part with it during a two-hour flight. It was another journalist, Stanley Karnow, who had just joined The Post and was puzzled why Bagdikian was so reluctant to move the box and let him sit there instead.
“Oh, you’ve got it,” Karnow said. “Got what, Stanley?” Bagdikian answered. Both gentlemen agreed, journalist Sanford Ungar later wrote in a May 1972 article for Esquire, that “it would be better to talk later.”
It is now 47 years later, and some of the questions unleashed by the Pentagon Papers controversy have resurfaced, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s terrific movie. Among the best scenes is that of a small team of WaPo editors hunched over the 4,000 pages that Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) had lugged into executive editor Benjamin Bradlee’s home library, where they tried to put the puzzle together. In the next room, Bradlee argued with the paper’s lawyers, who advised him and publisher Katharine Graham not to publish.
That would’ve been prudent. The Post had just gone public and risked spooking its investors by going up against the White House, no less. Graham’s decision to publish and the work that Bradlee’s team put into the Pentagon Papers series began The Post’s transformation from “a local paper with modest margins and modest ambitions” into an institution of American journalism. Thirty-eight months after the Pentagon Papers case, Richard Nixon resigned as US president, mostly in response to The Post’s investigative work on the Watergate scandal.
Because we know the favorable outcome—a landmark victory in the Supreme Court, the downfall of a lying and paranoid president, and respect for investigative journalism—it’s easy to downplay the risks that American journalists took in deciding to write about and publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. There’s a riveting chapter on this in former The New York Times managing editor Arthur Gelb’s memoirs (“City Room,” 2003).
Before they began to run their Pentagon Papers series on June 13, 1971, The Times had devoted two and a half months; a crew of 75 reporters, editors, and production personnel; and nine rooms rented in the Hilton Hotel on Sixth Avenue to the endeavor, which they called Project X. After going over the papers leaked by former government analyst Daniel Ellsberg, The Times publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger Sr. recalled, “What became clear after reading was that these were extraordinary documents proving deceit of the American people by their elected officials. I had no doubt the American people had a right to read them and that we at The Times had a right to publish them.”
Those were different times, when media companies had the financial muscle, political clout, and the public’s regard to take extraordinary risks. “We could all go to prison,” The Post’s executive editor Benjamin Bradlee (played with style and humor by Tom Hanks) tells his publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep, incredible as usual). “Now, putting that aside…”
If something similar were to happen these days, I’m not sure how many publishers and editors (in the Philippines, at least) would be willing to risk their valuable connections with the powers-that-be and decide to publish. I wish I could confidently say many would do so. (“My God, the fun!”) But given journalism’s thin margins and the ruthless propaganda machinery at government’s disposal, would today’s editors and publishers have the courage to confront a government systematically lying to its citizens?
Things are so much easier in the movies.