Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified December 1791
In 1971, Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black wrote for the majority in New York Times Company vs. The United States
“The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. … [W]e are asked to hold that…the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Judiciary can make laws…abridging freedom of the press in the name of ‘national security.’ … To find that the President has ‘inherent power’ to halt the publication of news…would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make ‘secure.’ … The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged, ”
The 6-3 decision in favor of the New York Times and the Washington Post ended a short, but arguably pivotal debate in the life of our republic. The Nixon Administration had challenged the First Amendment’s freedom of the press in an attempt to suppress the publication of what came to be known as The Pentagon Papers. Officially commissioned in 1967 by the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, the papers were titled “Report of the Office of Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force,” and were meant to be a record of American involvement in Southeast Asia to be used by historians and future policymakers. McNamara later said that the intent was to provide historical documentation of policy decisions so that subsequent generations could learn from decisions made in the past (read, ‘mistakes’).
Copies of the report were limited, but one was kept at The Rand Corporation, a military and defense think tank that did and still does conduct research for the State and Defense Departments. Daniel Ellsberg, a contractor who had worked on the project, copied and then leaked the papers first to the New York Times, and then later to The Washington Post, after realizing that the government would continue to lie about U.S. involvement and success in Vietnam. Ellsberg knew the papers demonstrated that as far back as the Kennedy Administration, policymakers as high up as the Secretary of Defense (McNamara) knew the war was unwinnable and yet, continued to send more ground troops to die in the jungle. Ellsberg believed that the only way to end the war was to publish the report.
This was the story dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a film I finally watched last weekend thanks to the internet’s streaming capabilities.
Freedom of the Press, Women, and the Marriage of Media and Politics
The victory of a free and independent press over the power of government secrecy was, of course, a central theme of the movie. Given that was what actually happened made it easy to spot. A bit more opaque was the role that women played in the newsroom. They were there, but limited. Almost all of the reporters in the newsroom were men, and they were (if memory serves) all white. The notable exception was Katherine Graham, played by Merle Streep, the first woman to publish a major American newspaper. The Washington Post was a family newspaper, purchased by her father, Eugene Meyer in 1933. At his death, Meyer left the paper to his son-in-law, Philip, Katherine’s husband. In 1963, Graham killed himself, leaving The Post to Katherine, who managed it for the next 20 years and during its most famous period: Watergate. This thread, that of a middle-aged, smart, and educated woman at the helm of a major American newspaper making decisions that would decide the course of history is just one example of the revolution in gender stereotypes that began in the 1970s. Women forcing and changing the political conversation has ebbed and flowed ever since.
The marriage of media and politics was a subdued theme throughout the film, but one that I found interesting. Tom Hanks played Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of The Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers crisis and throughout the Watergate scandal. Hank’s portrayal of Bradlee was as a perennial newspaperman, his first priority alternated between reporting the truth and scooping The New York Times. His guttural line from the movie’s trailer that always makes me laugh, “The country will lose!’ is emblematic of Hank’s portrayal of the legendary editor. Bradlee believed (at least in the movie), that the role of the press was to be a check on political power, and that only by publishing the truth, could a democracy truly exist.
But underneath that altruistic understanding of the press’s responsibility was what had been a tight relationship between government elites and those responsible for checking their power. Hank’s character bemoaned his relationship with President Kennedy, looking wistfully at a picture of Jack and Jackie, Bradlee and his wife taken presumably during JFK’s presidency. Bradlee is visibly upset and repeatedly laments that they “all lied.” Kay Graham and Bob McNamara were family friends; it was intimated that he wanted The Post to go easy on the Ellsberg leak because of their relationship. Kay refused to ask her friend, former Secretary of Defense McNamara for a copy of “the papers” given their familial history. This was the arrangement in post-war politics and explains why it was so shocking to those in the media when it broke down. To Bradlee, it was a betrayal not just of friendship, but of the unspoken understanding between those in power and the press.
The free press in 2018
It is hard, if not impossible, to watch a movie like The Post, and not reflect on the media’s relevance today. We must not accept the President of the United States’ use of the term, “fake news,” simply because a newspaper prints something unflattering or negative about the administration. We should not just roll our eyes when reporters are disparaged and threatened by POTUS. A free and independent press is the right, by which we demand all of our other rights under the Constitution.
As an institution, the media is scorned in poll after poll; ranking near the bottom in “trustworthiness.” Exceptions are local news, which may see an erosion if the Sinclair – Tribune merger receives FCC approval. We can address the “why” later; it is true, the national news media has blown a couple of prime opportunities to inform the public of elite misuse of power. But the answer cannot be the acceptance of elite intransigence and lack of transparency. Within days of taking office, the Trump Administration clamped down on public disclosures and White House visitor logs. The White House Press Secretary stood at the podium and lied about inaugural crowd sizes. Republicans, the only citizens that can truly make a difference in forcing behavior changes, said nothing. Attacks on the press continue and still, the President’s party and Congressional leadership are silent. It’s a big deal.
In conclusion, I hear a lot of complaints about “the liberal media.” I’ve read posts from some stating that “the media lies” and yet, those same individuals have no problem believing the ravings of anonymous bloggers who offer no sources or credible accreditations to his or her claims. Alternatively, those of us on the left point to FOX News as the biggest threat to American democracy when in reality, that honor goes to the guy in the Oval Office. Roger Aisles set out to build a media empire that would prevent a Republican president from being forced out of office by the media. That was the goal. Aisles manufactured a product and an audience followed. Is that FOX News’s fault? Or America’s?
The First Amendment is the most important one we have. Without it, the rest are just words on parchment – and yes, that includes the 27 that makeup right to bear arms. All of its protections are inviolable; they are sacrosanct. I have never been a journalist, nor do I understand what it takes to “work the beat.” But what they do each and every day, whether in their local communities or in the halls of Congress, is fundamental to our body politic. There has always been a natural tension between the press and the governors. The last time the free press was under this significant a threat, was during the Nixon Administration. The press won back then. Just think how history would be different had the Pentagon Papers not been published.
What The Post teaches is what we have always known. “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”