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.

 

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