Icy Area Slithers And Skids

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One of the countless headlines I’ve written over the years sticks in my mind because it was so stupid.
The banner I splashed across the front page of the Worcester Evening Gazette sometime around 1961 read:
“Icy Area Slithers And Skids”
It was of course a weather story, and I was trying to convey the idea that the particular affliction on this Massachusetts winter day was ice on the roads. One might well ask how an area could slither and skid, and of course the answer is it can’t. But perhaps I can provide some background, in explanation if not in extenuation.
Daily newspapers and other media anchored in a particular jurisdiction, then and now, see a need to reach out to people on the outskirts. They employ various stratagems to do so, most of them clumsy. Media around Washington, DC, for example, currently use DMV, which they intend to stand for District, Maryland and Virginia although the translation that more readily springs to mind is Department of Motor Vehicles. When I worked for the Toronto Star, we used the term “Metro” to stand for our circulation area although to others that’s a term for a subway. Now the Star staff uses GTA, which apparently stands for “Greater Toronto Area.”
So back in my day the term for Worcester and Worcester County was “Area,” and it had both animate and inanimate usage.
It’s still a dumb headline, but now at least you have an idea of how it got up there.

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A Parable of Assimilation

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Let me tell you a story—a parable as it were.

Back around the turn of the century, a father hosted a groom’s dinner. There had been an open bar and the food was good and the father felt warm and expansive and generous as he rose to give a toast.

His theme was assimilation. The dinner was long ago and the memory is getting dimmer, but he probably talked about how his Danish grandparents came to Wisconsin in the 19th century and assimilated. He probably talked about how his own wife’s mother had been born in this country but only began to assimilate when she first arrived at school because her parents had spoken Norwegian at home. He probably talked about how his son’s bride’s family came from Korea much later, in the middle of the 20th century, and was now assimilating. He went on like that for a while and the toast was well received, so he went back to his table and sat down.

Next to his son’s roommate’s girlfriend. He suddenly remembered that for her his image of the great American melting pot was a bit out of focus, because she was Paiute Shoshone.

He mumbled something, now mercifully forgotten.

“It’s OK,” she replied kindly. “I know what you were trying to say.”

What he had been trying to say, or at least should have been trying to say, was: “Welcome.”

Fast forward one generation. The parents of that groom, now grandparents, several years ago began to sponsor midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and welcomed a succession of young strangers into their empty nest. Then this year they got an email from a young man who had attended that long-ago wedding, although he didn’t actually remember it because he had been so little. He was the son of a cousin of that bride and now was about to graduate from the Academy and be commissioned an ensign. He had only recently become aware of any family connection in Annapolis, and could he come over and visit?

He could and did, and that is how Cathe and I—the parents/grandparents in the fable—became acquainted with this unknown kinsman.

Cathe being a congenital and congenial hostess, her immediate instinct was to offer to put on a graduation-eve party for our newfound “nephew-in-law” and his visiting family. In just a few days, and at a late date only weeks from graduation, it grew by accretion to include several of his graduating classmates and their families.

And thus Cathe and I became aware of a subset of the Academy population: He and his closest friends are all first-generation Americans—another Korean American, a Colombian American, a Filipino American. Is this grouping a coincidence or is some unseen dynamic at work at the Naval Academy?

 

Fly on the Wall

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Katharine Graham earned her place in the pantheon of heroic newspaper publishers twice over—first with the Pentagon Papers and later with Watergate. The latter story has already led to a famous book and movie, “All the President’s Men,” and now Hollywood has dramatized the first instance in which she decided to put at risk the media empire she had reluctantly inherited when her husband took his life. In each case she made the same decision—to stand behind the solid reporting of her staff.

The latest movie, “The Post,” features Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and was directed by Stephen Spielberg—star attractions all. But the reason I particularly looked forward to seeing it is that I happened to be on hand when Mrs. Graham made the courageous decision the film is all about.

Sbe literally phoned it in.

Spoiler alert: The story ends with a historic U.S. Supreme Court decision against “prior restraint”—virtually barring forever any government effort to prevent publication of a story.

The so-called Pentagon Papers at the center of the drama began offhandedly as an academic exercise. Things had been going wrong in Vietnam for years by the summer of 1967 when Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense under President Lyndon Johnson, decided it might be a good idea to figure out why.

“We had failed,” McNamara wrote in his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.

“Why this failure?” he mused. “Could it have been prevented? What lessons could be drawn from our experiences that would enable others to avoid similar failures? The thought that scholars would surely wish to explore these questions once the war had ended was increasingly on my mind.”

So McNamara had a task force begin gathering government documents at the RAND Corporation in California, a research institution that did a lot of contract work for the Pentagon. He didn’t mention his project to the president or secretary of state. And of course he had no plan to share it with the public. It was classified “Top Secret.”

But one of the researchers was a former Marine officer named Daniel Ellsberg, who became convinced that people should know what the task force had dug up. He surreptitiously photocopied the study and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1969.

Silence.

Finally, in 1971, a frustrated Ellsberg leaked the study to Neil Sheehan, a reporter for The New York Times who had been a distinguished war correspondent in Vietnam.

The Times secretively gathered its reporters who were versed in Vietnam, assigned them to write stories based on the study, and walled off secure areas where the stories could be put together.

It took three months before the Times finally kicked off publication in its editions of June 13, 1971, starting with a front-page headline—“Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement”—and following up with page after page inside.

At The Washington Post, those articles galvanized Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, who combined the graceful insouciance of privilege with the competitive instincts of an old-style newshound. The stories were scoops, and his own paper needed at least to match them if not beat the competition by digging out its own stories from that trove of information. The Post had to get those documents too.

Enter Ben Bagdikian. After sharing a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award as a reporter and foreign correspondent at the Providence Journal, Bagdikian had segued into freelance writing and media criticism when Bradlee lured him back to daily newspapering with a challenge to put theory into practice.

As assistant managing editor for national news, Bagdikian had done that by pioneering long-form reporting on heavyweight subjects that started on the front page of the Post and jumped to cleared pages inside. As an assistant national editor, editing those reports was my mid-career job.

It happened that Bagdikian remembered Ellsberg from when he had been at RAND himself, writing a book on future transformation of media by modern communications. He figured Ellsberg might be the source of the Pentagon Papers and got in touch with him.

Meanwhile, however, the Nixon administration’s Justice Department went into federal court to prevent the Times from publishing any more stories from the Papers, citing national security but actually motivated by embarrassment for itself and previous administrations. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York granted the order. So the Times dutifully shut down its presses while pursuing its legal appeal.

A frustrated Ellsberg agreed to turn the papers over to Bagdikian for publication in the Post.

Newsrooms feed on rumors and leak like a sieve, so Bagdikian brought the papers on a plane from Boston to Ben Bradlee’s Georgetown home and called me in to edit the copy there (rather than in the newsroom, as in the movie). As I recall, it was a Federal-style rowhouse, fairly narrow and deep, with a front door on the right-hand side and a long corridor behind that extending to the back of the house. I remember wide doorways that opened to rooms on the left—library, living room, dining room—and a phone in the hallway that played a part in the ensuing drama.

Three reporters with experience writing about Vietnam—Chalmers M. Roberts, Murrey Marder and Don Oberdorfer—were brought in to dig through the thousands of pages and write the resulting stories. We set up in the library.

Bradlee, Bagdikian and Deputy Managing Editor Howard Simons were on hand to supervise—and, as it turned out, to argue with the lawyers in the living room as the writers worked.

Attorneys Roger Clark and Anthony Essaye, of the firm Royal, Koegel and Wells, were experienced and comfortable dealing with Post editors and reporters on issues that came up, like claims of defamation.

But this situation made them uncomfortable. Their essential argument was that if the Post went ahead and published while the Times was under court order not to publish, that act could be construed as contempt of court and the Post could be penalized.

The essential counterargument of the editors was that the Post had a duty to publish the important news it had gathered.

As the deadline for the first city edition neared, around 7 p.m., Chal Roberts had finished the first story and it was ready to go by courier direct to the Post composing room. We took a break for sandwiches, cold cuts and coffee.

But the argument with the lawyers had not been resolved, and it spilled over into our workspace.

Roger Clark had suggested a “compromise.” Instead of publishing a story, the Post could print a front-page box saying it had the Pentagon Papers and would be publishing stories from them the following day. This, Clark said, would assert the right to publish.

The journalists didn’t like it. “That’s the shittiest idea I ever heard,” Oberdorfer said.

“The way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” is the way Bagdikian put it.

Ultimately, the intramural dispute was settled by Kay Graham, who was reached by telephone at a party. She decided to go with her editors against the advice of her lawyers and the Post’s top business executive, Frederick S. “Fritz” Beebe, who by that time also had turned up at Bradlee’s house.

Beebe pointed out that publication could jeopardize the company’s television licenses and a pending offer of common stock.

Mrs. Graham nevertheless gave the order to go ahead and publish, and the presses rolled with the first headline, “Documents Reveal U.S. Effort To Delay Viet Election.”

The story was far from over, though, because Mrs. Graham’s decision had to be vindicated in the courts.

The challenges brought by the two newspapers ended up in the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court rejects most petitions, but it is more likely to accept them when faced with a conflict between circuit courts of appeal. That happened in this case because although the federal appellate court in New York had barred the Times from publishing its stories, the Post had won its case against prior restraint every step of the way through the District of Columbia Circuit.

The Supreme Court accepted the two cases, combined them for argument, and wound up by vacating the New York order and upholding the D.C. courts. Its 6-3 decision effectively ended prior restraint.

As David Halberstam put it in his book about big media companies, The Powers That Be, Katharine Graham and her top editors all concluded that the Pentagon Papers marked “the first moment of the Post as a big-time newspaper, a paper able to stand on its own and make its own decisions. Without it, they were sure, there never would have been Watergate. Because of the decisions that were taken that night, there were never any decisions needed on Watergate; never during Watergate did Ben Bradlee have to call Katharine Graham about whether or not they should print a particular story. If you had it, you went with it. It was the key moment for the paper, the coming of age.”

The Watergate burglary took place the next year, and I edited my share of the coverage as that scandal wound through Congress and the courts.

Thereafter courage spread through journalism like a benign virus. Public respect went up, and even tangential Post alumni might find their careers enhanced by the experience and aura of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. In my case, for example, they were clearly assets as I went on to become, successively, news features editor and Saturday (weekend edition) editor of the Toronto Star, assistant managing editor of the New York Post, editor-in-chief of the Calgary Albertan, and managing editor and executive editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When I got to Seattle, the P-I already had its own investigative duo patterned on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (They were good, too—Eric Nalder and Timothy Egan.) Along the way, I was instrumental in keeping two of these newspapers alive.

Footnote: I’ve shared this story with friends and family, and more than once the reaction was to ask me which actor is playing me in the movie. No, no, no! I say. The point is not that I was a big player myself but that I was lucky enough to be a witness to an epic battle for journalism. My role was to watch and listen while the true heroes charged up that hill and planted that flag—figuratively, because the greatest hero wasn’t even on the premises.

I did, however, make a contribution after the fact. A day or so after Mrs. Graham’s decision, I reminded Ben Bagdikian of his line, “the way to assert the right to publish is to publish.”

“Did I say that?” he replied. “That’s good.”

His formulation has since been memorialized in several books reconstructing the argument, and in the movie Ben Bradlee utters it with “only” inserted before “way.” As a moviegoer I consider that acceptable poetic license, but as an editor I say “only” is unnecessary.

The original has a Churchillian feel to it, a ring of authority and finality. It’s axiomatic.

 

The First Rough Draft of History

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Philip Graham, the owner who put The Washington Post on its path to becoming a world-class newspaper, once described journalism as the “first rough draft of history.” Now that the role of “the media” is under full-throated attack, how about a reasoned defense based on that premise?

Can we start by stipulating that “media” is a plural noun? It represents more than one medium of communication. They range from metropolitan daily newspapers and broadcast media to obscure cable channels and websites, and even tweets on Twitter. These media differ widely in purpose, style, intent, quality and reliability.

Lumping them together as a single entity is not only imprecise but often reflects a malicious intent to blame all for the perceived sins of a few.

Next, can we postulate that, as it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun”?

According to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, media even used to beat up on the Founders—sometimes with the active assistance of two of those great men themselves as they disputed the destiny of the new nation.

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson each started a newspaper in Philadelphia when it was the national capital and they were both members of George Washington’s Cabinet. It might be better to say “foment” rather than “start,” because they tried to keep their support of their creations covert.

Although ostensibly colleagues as heads of the Treasury and State Department, respectively, they grew increasingly disputatious over both turf and ideology. Hamilton favored a strong central government, whereas Jefferson’s dream was an agrarian society. Hamilton espoused strong ties with Britain, while Jefferson favored revolutionary France.

Hamilton’s faction evolved into the Federalist Party, while Jefferson’s followers became first Republicans, then Democratic Republicans and finally Democrats. Thus began the American two-party system.

That development was accompanied by overt partisanship in the media. The Cabinet rivals’ differing visions for the Republic were reflected in the newspapers they instigated, albeit often murkily through articles signed with pseudonyms.

Historian Chernow notes that newspapers of the 1790s “did not feign impartiality. With the population widely dispersed, newspapers were unabashedly partisan organs that supplied much of the adhesive power binding the incipient parties together. Americans were a literate people, and dozens of newspapers flourished. The country probably had more newspapers per capita than any other.”

The ideals of “impartiality” and “balance” came later, and might not be all that helpful. Even if desirable, those goals are clearly more difficult to achieve than, say, the simpler ones of accuracy and fairness.

Nor is beating up on the media all that new. Amid bad news about urban riots, government spying and a costly war in Southeast Asia, for example, the administration of Richard Nixon chose to target the messengers bearing the messages. Vice President Spiro Agnew called them “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals” and as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

In 1973, though, Agnew was charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County executive, governor of Maryland, and vice president. On condition that he resign, he was allowed to plead “no contest” to a single charge that he had failed to report $29,500 of income received in 1967, and he was sentenced only to three years’ probation and a $10,000 fine.

Agnew was the one who turned out to be discredited, not the reporters who had been reporting on his corruption. (The curious coincidence of a public official complaining about “the media” and then being caught with his or her hand in the till, or somewhere else it doesn’t belong, has been played out again and again at state and local levels in our history.)

Agnew’s disgrace was merely a blip. The Nixon administration’s strategy of attacking the media continued throughout the Watergate scandal, which unfolded gradually between 1972 and 1975.

The strategy’s principal targets were The Washington Post and two of its young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who produced a succession of stories uncovering Nixon administration officials’ roles in instigating a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, and then in orchestrating a cover-up.

Targeting the media wasn’t enough to save Nixon and his aides, though. Their attempt to use Executive Branch powers to hijack the U.S. government ran afoul of the other two branches. Both the Judiciary and Congress did their jobs, and the U.S. Constitution worked as it should.

Presiding over the trial of the Watergate burglars, U.S. District Judge John Sirica voiced doubt that the defendants were being fully truthful. He got them to name higher-ups, who then faced prosecution. In 1973 Sirica ordered President Nixon to turn over his secret tapes of White House conversations to a special prosecutor and congressional investigators. The Supreme Court upheld his ruling in July 1974.

All this time, the House and Senate had been pursuing their own investigations, which ultimately resulted in impeachment proceedings. Facing involuntary removal from office, Nixon resigned in August 1974.

Along the way, other members of newspaper and broadcast media came to realize Woodward and Bernstein were onto a real story. They too began to cover it, thus increasing public pressure on Congress to act.

Nixon escaped criminal charges because his successor, Gerald Ford, exercised his presidential prerogative to grant Nixon a pardon for any offenses he “committed or may have committed or taken part in” as president. Other conspirators weren’t so lucky. Trials on a range of charges ended with findings of guilt for 48 officials, including two who had held the office of U.S. attorney general, the highest in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Our Constitution had worked as intended, with the Article I and Article III branches of government providing checks and balances that curbed the Article II branch.

Meanwhile, “the media” kept the process open to the public. They could do so because of another part of the Constitution, the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of the press.

Not every nation enjoys all these protections. More than fourscore years ago, a megalomaniac was elected to lead a nation with a far older and deeper culture than ours—but a weaker constitution. He quickly got rid of rival political parties and appointed a propaganda minister who dictated what publishers had to publish. That nation was brainwashed into following this leader into the worst war in history, resulting in its defeat and devastation.

The Founders probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn the First Amendment has produced messy results, ranging from memorable scoops and insights down to claptrap and outright falsehoods. They evidently figured We the People would be up to the job of separating the wheat from the chaff.

It’s not easy, so most providers of today’s media try to help by providing editing—or in today’s jargon “curating.” The better they do that job, the more trusted the publication, broadcast, website or Twitter feed.

Which brings us back to Philip Graham. His full quote is on page 324 of the paperback edition of Personal History, the autobiography of Katharine Graham, his widow and successor as head of the newspaper, magazine and broadcasting empire he put together. He was talking to his staffers at Newsweek about processing “the daily and weekly grist of journalism.”

“Much of it, of course, is pure chaff. . . . But no one yet has been able to produce wheat without chaff. . . . So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

Graham took the long view. Maybe we should all draw a deep breath and do the same.

© 2017, J.V. Reistrup

Call of the Pipes

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The Toronto Star, where I used to work, takes itself a bit less seriously than, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post. Last year, for example, it published the obituary of an accomplished colleague with the irreverent headline: “Former Star editor remembered for legendary caper in Canadian journalism.” Although the secondary heading respectfully adds, “Alastair Dow died this week at age 77 after distinguished career in business writing,” I prefer the tone of the hed and this lede:

“One day in 1977, Alastair Dow and fellow Toronto Star editors Bruce Garvey and Jim Rennie decided over a booze-soaked lunch to fly across the Atlantic, just because.”

As Staff Reporter May Warren noted, details of that tale depended on who was telling it (and probably on who was listening). But as Saturday editor of the Star back in 1977 I was a confidant on the same level, with whom the three could share information and feelings they wouldn’t have volunteered to people for whom they worked or who worked for them. We used to hang out together in the bar conveniently located on the first floor of the Star building along with the bank where our paychecks were automatically deposited. So I can provide some context about the management moves that ticked off this trio of senior editors and sent them on their merry way.

Top Star management had a habit of moving people around to different assignments, apparently just to see what worked. Publisher Beland Honderich and Editor-in-Chief Martin Goodman were brilliant and successful newspaper people, but from time to time orders would come down the line that appeared arbitrary and capricious. Those of us lower in the chain of command believed that they came from Bee Honderich and that Marty channeled them.

Anyway, as I recall, at this time Dow was business editor, Garvey was national editor and Rennie was news editor, although the obit suggests Dow was national editor. In any case, Bee Honderich apparently took it into his head that the paper would be better if these senior editors came in at oh-dark-hundred to close the earliest edition of this afternoon newspaper. None of the three was a morning person and all had advanced far enough in their careers that they were used to keeping more congenial hours. Honderich also might have switched a couple of their roles in this process, further disgruntling them.

So Ray Timson, the managing editor, was assigned to persuade this trio of his top editors that Bee’s latest flash of enlightenment was brilliant. Timson could match drinks and stories with anyone (check out this memoir by his daughter), and he got along famously with his staff. So he took the trio out and treated them to lunch at the Salty Dog down the street. The luncheon lasted well into the afternoon, possibly evening. I was told the bill was above $200, a lot in those times. As the sun threatened to set, Ray decided to go home. He had an inflexible rule, which was that even if he got drunk as a lord he could function the next day as long as he got X hours of sleep—as I recall, seven. But in this case he didn’t ensure that his trio of senior editors followed that rule, nor that they had been persuaded by his eloquence. We will never know what he had said to them. “This too will pass? Bee won’t even remember it a couple of days from now”?

As noted earlier, details of this story vary depending on who was telling it. The following is pretty much the version Cathe and I got immediately afterward from Jim Rennie and Bruce Garvey. We never got Al’s version.

Ray Timson paid the restaurant check and went home, confident that when he arrived early the next morning his three top editors would be on hand to greet him and close the first edition.

No such luck. The three went instead to Toronto airport and tried to get on a British Airways flight to London. They were turned back because the British staff somehow detected they were drunk. They managed to get aboard an Air Canada flight, whose more tolerant staff agreed to carry them if they sat in the back of the plane and were quiet.

The rival Toronto Sun later published a story that the three wanted to go to Israel, “in search of the perfect orange,” but the Sun was an irresponsible tabloid that printed all kinds of claptrap. No, no, Rennie and Garvey assured me and Cathe later.

All three editors had been born in the United Kingdom. They were turning their backs on their adopted country—whether temporarily or permanently isn’t clear—to go back to their homeland, like Jews who show up in Israel and claim the right of return. Their specific destination was Scotland. It was “the call of the pipes.” Although Garvey was born in London, his father had served in Scotland’s famous Black Watch regiment, and Rennie was from Glasgow. Dow was born in England, but apparently far enough north that he too heard the call of the pipes. So that was where they were headed.

Actually they got only as far as London’s Heathrow Airport. Their first obstacle was immigration. They were stuck in a line for arriving passengers including various foreigners from the Commonwealth. This of course enraged our UK-born trio although they of course lacked passports and visas, and had precious little identification. At one point, Rennie presented a credit card. It was from a Canadian Tire store, sort of like Sears. He cleverly put his thumb over the word “Tire,” thus showing only the word “Canadian” along with the distinctive red maple leaf logo. “See? Canadian!” he said. Didn’t work.

So finally they had to ask the immigration officials to call the Star to verify their identities.

At this point Ray Timson re-enters the picture. He took the call. Although he had confidently expected his three senior editors to take his avuncular advice and show up on time for work, the Brits informed him they were at Heathrow. Did they belong to him? What should immigration do with them?

Send them home, Timson decided. Easier said than done, because they were still pretty drunk and obstreperous. So Timson called the Star’s London correspondent, George Bain, to get some money to pay for the flight back and babysit them in the meantime. Bain was by all accounts an estimable journalist, but not exactly cut from the same cloth as our errant trio. (To give you the idea, he had a sideline as the Star’s wine columnist, talking about “nose” and “bouquet” and like that. So they regarded him as something of a priss.) Anyway, Bain got them back aboard a flight to Toronto.

What to do? The Star was being penalized for its dumb decision to mess up the biological clocks of three senior editors whose services it needed. The trio of course had to be penalized in turn. So the Star suspended each for two weeks without pay.

Celia Garvey, for one, considered that appropriate. She thought it served her husband right, and during those two weeks he had to do useful things around the house, like painting or wallpapering or whatever.

The careers of the errant trio continued after that, mostly uninterrupted. They were good at what they did. Could be that Bee pretty much left them alone.

© 2016, J.V. Reistrup

‘The Way To Assert the Right To Publish Is To Publish’

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The career of the late Ben H. Bagdikian traced a long shining arc across the firmament of American journalism, from sharing a Pulitzer Prize in his earlier years at the Providence Journal to serving as the most perceptive and demanding of media critics and finally as professor and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Gentle and soft-spoken in manner, he was nevertheless as combative as need be when defending his core principles of independent reporting and freedom of expression.

It was my privilege to work closely with him during his stint in the 1970s as assistant managing editor for national news at The Washington Post, most notably when the Post published stories based on the “Pentagon Papers” and went on to win the subsequent fight in the U.S. Supreme Court that ended with a virtual bar on prior restraint by government on publication of news.

Bagdikian was already a noted media critic and scholar of the press when Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee brought him aboard from the RAND Corporation in 1970, challenging him to put his ivory-tower theories into practice. That is what Bagdikian proceeded to do.

As a devotee of in-depth investigative journalism, for example, he instituted several series on American institutions and their systemic problems. Each series started on Page 1 and jumped to a clear page inside, every day for a week. As it happened, he assigned me to handle the substantive editing under his guidance, so I am happy to count him among my mentors. The Post later republished each series as a paperback. For one series, The Shame of the Prisons, Bagdikian arranged to get himself sent to prison in Pennsylvania as a wife murderer.

It was publication of the Pentagon Papers, though, that marked the First Amendment highlight of his tenure. As it happened, I was on hand and watched the debate over whether to publish like a fly on the wall.

The Pentagon Papers, which ended up as a landmark Supreme Court case, began offhandedly as an academic exercise.

By the summer of 1967, then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was to recall later, “it was clear that our policies and programs in Indochina had evolved in ways that we had neither anticipated nor intended, and that the costs—human, political, social, and economic—had grown far greater than anyone had imagined. We had failed. Why this failure? Could it have been prevented? What lessons could be drawn from our experiences that would enable others to avoid similar failures? The thought that scholars would surely wish to explore these questions once the wars had ended was increasingly on my mind.”

So McNamara had a DoD task force begin gathering government documents. “I never thought to mention the project to the president or the secretary of state,” McNamara recalled in his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. “It was hardly a secret, however, nor could it have been with 36 researchers and analysts ultimately involved.”

Nevertheless, the resulting 3,000-page study, with 4,000 more pages of supporting documents, was classified “Top Secret–Sensitive” when it was completed in 1969. It was officially entitled “Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force” and ultimately became known as the Pentagon Papers. Notably, the most recent document was from 1968.

Although the study was historical in content and intent, it contained classified material about a war that was still going on—U.S. withdrawal didn’t come until 1973—and was not completely declassified until 2011. Moreover, some of its content was embarrassing to both the former Johnson administration and the current Nixon administration. It was, after all, about policy failure.

One of the researchers for the study was Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine officer who went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a military analyst at the RAND Corporation, which did a lot of contract work for the federal government.

Ellsberg became convinced that people should know what the task force had dug up. In 1969 he surreptitiously photocopied the study and gave it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Silence.

Then, in 1971, he gave it to Neil Sheehan, a reporter for The New York Times who had been a distinguished war correspondent in Vietnam.

The Times secretively gathered its reporters who were versed in Vietnam, assigned them to write stories based on the study, and walled off a secure areas of the composing room where printers put the stories into type.

After three months, the Times kicked off publication.

“Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement,” said the first Page 1 headline on June 13, 1971. Inside were page after page of additional articles based on the Pentagon Papers.

At The Washington Post, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee was galvanized by being scooped by the Times. He wanted his own newspaper to get at those documents.

Fortunately, Ben Bagdikian knew Ellsberg from the RAND Corporation and figured he was a likely source. They got in touch.

Meanwhile, the Nixon administration’s Justice Department went into federal court to prevent the Times from publishing any more stories, citing national security.

The judge rejected the claim and the paper kept publishing. But the government went to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and won an injunction against further publication.

So the Times dutifully shut down its presses while pursuing its legal appeal.

Ellsberg then agreed to provide Bagdikian with copies of the papers, and for the sake of secrecy Bagdikian took them to Bradlee’s Georgetown home rather than the Post building. Three reporters with experience writing about Vietnam—Chalmers Roberts, Murrey Marder and Don Oberdorfer—were brought there to dig through the papers and write stories, and I was sent over from the Post to edit their copy.

Bradlee, Bagdikian and Deputy Managing Editor Howard Simons were on hand to supervise—and, as it turned out, to argue with the lawyers.

Attorneys Roger Clark and Anthony Essaye, of the firm Royal, Koegel and Wells, were experienced and comfortable dealing with Post editors and reporters on issues that came up, like claims of defamation, but this situation made them uncomfortable.

Their essential argument was that if the Post went ahead and published while the Times was under court order not to publish, that act could be construed as contempt and the Post could be penalized.

The essential counterargument of the reporters and editors was that the Post had a duty to print the news it had gathered. “The way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” Bagdikian memorably said.

The lengthy argument was vividly reconstructed, based on recollections of participants, in The Powers That Be, David Halberstam’s 1979 book about the big media companies. Bagdikian himself described it at length in his 1995 memoir, Double Vision.

As Halberstam put it, when this watershed fight for a free press came along “it was as if Bagdikian, press critic and press scholar, had been waiting all his life for it.”

Ultimately, the intramural dispute in Bradlee’s home was settled by Post owner Katharine Graham, who was reached by telephone at a party. She decided to go with her editors against the advice of her lawyers and the Post’s top business executive, Frederick S. “Fritz” Beebe, who by that time also had turned up at Bradlee’s house.

Kay Graham gave the order to go ahead and publish.

Both the Post and the Times went on to prevail over the Nixon administration in the U.S. Supreme Court. The resulting decision effectively invalidated virtually all prior restraint on publication.

The ruling has gone into the archives as New York Times Co. vs. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971), and the following year the Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Nevertheless, the role played by the Post was arguably more important.

The decision by the Times to publish was bold, but it was even more bold for the Post to go ahead with its Pentagon Papers stories after the Times had been forbidden to do so and had acquiesced.

The Post asserted the right to publish by publishing.

The Post’s position also strengthened the legal case. The Post won at both levels leading up to the Supreme Court—the district and appellate federal courts. The Times, by contrast, had been stopped at the appellate level and hadn’t published since then, leading to a gap of more than two weeks until the Supreme Court ruled.

The conflict between two U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal made a powerful argument for the highest court to take up a case several of the brethren would have preferred to let fester.

The resulting 6–3 decision isn’t particularly quotable in itself. It’s a “per curiam,” or “for the court,” order with nobody’s name on it. It simply says the highest court agreed that the government had not met the “heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition” of a restraint on publication.

Justices Potter Stewart and Byron White went along with the result—that is, lifting the stays—but suggested other circumstances might have dictated otherwise. They said that under certain circumstances the government might be justified in getting injunctions against publication. But, Stewart wrote, Congress hadn’t provided the Executive Branch with that authority.

Similarly, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote: “The issue in this case is whether this Court or the Congress has power to make law. . . . The Constitution provides that Congress shall make laws, the President execute laws, and courts interpret laws. . . . It did not provide for government by injunction in which the courts and the Executive Branch can ‘make law’ without regard to the action of Congress.”

Justice John Marshall Harlan, joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Harry Blackmun, dissented and said they would have sent the cases back to lower courts for fuller argument.

Accompanying that same brief order, however, are ringing concurrences from the other three justices that are destined to be cited in future First Amendment cases. They reflect Bagdikian’s credo.

Justice Hugo Black, joined by Justice William O. Douglas, said the government’s case against the Post should have been dismissed and the injunction against the Times vacated “without oral argument when the cases were first presented to this Court. I believe that every moment’s continuance of these injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. . . . In my view it is unfortunate that some of my Brethren are apparently willing to hold that the publication of news may sometimes be enjoined. Such a holding would make a shambles of the First Amendment.”

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. not only rejected the government’s case for prior restraint but warned against trying anything like that again. “I write separately only to emphasize what should be apparent: that our judgments in the present cases may not be taken to indicate the propriety, in the future, of issuing temporary stays and restraining orders to block the publication of material sought to be suppressed by the Government. So far as I can determine, never before has the United States sought to enjoin a newspaper from publishing information in its possession. . . . The error that has pervaded these cases from the outset was the granting of any injunctive relief whatsoever, interim or otherwise.”

Let’s give the late David Halberstam the last word about the Post, the Pentagon Papers and the vindication of Bagdikian’s credo. From The Powers That Be:

“It was, they all thought later—Bradlee and [Editorial Page Editor Philip] Geyelin and Mrs. Graham—the first moment of the Post as a big-time newspaper, a paper able to stand on its own and make its own decisions. Without it, they were sure, there never would have been Watergate. Because of the decisions that were taken that night, there were never any decisions needed on Watergate; never during Watergate did Ben Bradlee have to call Katharine Graham about whether or not they should print a particular story. If you had it, you went with it. It was the key moment for the paper, the coming of age.”

R.I.P. Calgary Albertan

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One newspaper folded on my watch, but I don’t consider it a defeat.

The newspaper was the Calgary Albertan, and I was editor-in-chief the day it quit publishing in July 1980. That was the best title I ever had, and because both the owners and I knew the risks involved in taking the job I enjoyed other perks including a leased car and a guaranteed severance package if the paper were ever folded or sold.

Both eventually happened. The basic reason was financial hemorrhaging among other newspapers in the F.P. Publications Ltd. chain. It wasn’t much of a chain at all, simply an agglomeration of newspapers across Canada originally founded by individual strong-minded publishers who at some point decided they could achieve economies of scale, or safety in numbers, or something. They had all died off by that time, and their heirs simply decided to cash out.

The newspaper ended up being bought by the people who ran the Toronto Sun, and the Albertan ceased publication—to be succeeded immediately by the new Calgary Sun. I admired the Sun people because they were gutsy survivors of the defunct Toronto Telegram who had defiantly started up their own paper because they saw a niche for a downmarket tabloid. They had lifted the name from Rupert Murdoch’s Sun in the United Kingdom, along with the format including a “Sunshine Girl” on Page Three. Being Canadians, though, they put a swimsuit on her whereas in the original version she was topless.

The Sun’s Doug Creighton offered to keep me on, but I passed up the opportunity for a couple of reasons. For one thing I didn’t think I had the right instincts for the new paper, and for another I had expended a lot of energy and arguments persuading the staff that I knew what I was doing. So I didn’t think I could just show up the next day and say, “Never mind.”

Nevertheless I wished the new team well and am glad to see that the Calgary Sun is still going strong. The 35-year-old article below republished from the Albertan of July 1980 expresses that attitude, as well as a tribute to the old newspaper with roots dating back to when Alberta wasn’t even a province but only another district in the Northwest Territories.

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