Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne is planning a film called The Post, to star Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, that will depict how the Pentagon Papers saga developed in The Washington Post newsroom. Hanks will star as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Streep will play The Post’s publisher Katharine Graham.
Sounds like a great film, right? Two legendary actors in powerhouse roles. It sounds like a film worthy of one of the great newspaper stories.
Except, Poynter argues, the Pentagon Papers story isn’t a Post story, it’s a New York Times story.
In 1971, The Times first published excerpts of the papers with a front page featuring Tricia Nixon’s wedding, a story about a foiled airplane hijacking and Neil Sheehan’s first story about a massive confidential document leak.
The documents told the secret history of the Vietnam War and were commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The next day, Sheehan got another front-page story and another three pages of text titled the “Vietnam Archive.”
What happened next is ingrained in our minds: The Times received a telegram from the nation’s attorney general demanding the newspaper stop publishing the legal documents, accusing The Times of violating a federal espionage law.
The paper published more documents the next morning. The legal battle began. The Times was prevented from publishing any further, and its coverage paused, leaving The Post to pick up the slack.
Poynter writer Robert J. McNamara concedes that a movie about The Post and the Pentagon is a fine angle. The Washington paper stood up for journalism after The Times had been silenced, defying Nixon and continuing to bring the story to the public. The Post is definitely involved in this historic story.
But The Times broke the story. After Sheehan received 47 volumes of (Xeroxed!) material from former Marine Officer Daniel Ellsberg, the reporter reviewed the documents with editor Gerald Gold and flew the papers to New York.
In the city, Sheehan and Gold took control of the documents and holed up in a hotel with other Times staffers for 10 weeks. Abe Rosenthal, a legendary managing editor at The Times for decades, supervised it all.
The Poynter article describes that period in Times history as something out of a movie, albeit not the movie coming soon to the silver screen. McNamara has a gift for setting a scene.
“Think of the scenes in that movie… The grit, the grime, the groovy things people were wearing on Sixth Avenue in the spring of 1971 as reporters and editors slipped in and out of a clandestine newsroom,” he wrote. “And Abe Rosenthal, pugnacious and smart, arguing, despite Nixon’s outspoken hostility toward the media, that the government’s secret history of official deception had to be revealed.”
After months in the secret newsroom, The Times prevailed in the Supreme Court and went on to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers. They were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
“It’s one of the great newspaper stories,” McNamara writes. “Come on, Hollywood, that’s your movie.”
Why craft this retelling of an article about a movie about a saga that doesn’t even involve The News-Letter? To stress the importance of breaking news, our responsibility to break news despite anger from the administration and the media’s obligation to give credit where credit is due.
In the past, we’ve encountered information that has met opposition. Deciding what to publish and when, especially in sensitive situations, is a constant learning process that requires the input of several editors. As a paper, we’ve made mistakes. We’ve fractured relationships. We’ve brought stories to the public in ways that require penance.
The News-Letter has never broken something as big as the Pentagon Papers, but our responsibility to the truth remains similar to that of national publications. We have an obligation to produce the truth for our community regardless of the potential consequences (or lawsuits).
If students need to know something, we need to tell them. This isn’t always easy, but it’s a commitment we stick with every week. The Times’ and Post’s resilience with the Pentagon Papers is a timely reminder to never go silent.