Daniel Ellsberg on the cover of Time after leaking the Pentagon Papers
Editor's Note: From May 10 to May 12, journalist
Robert Parry participated in a conference entitled, "From the Pentagon
Papers to WikiLeaks: A Transatlantic Conversation on the Public's Right
to Know," sponsored by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in
The conference consisted of media figures, legal scholars and
freedom-of-information advocates -- and included Neil Sheehan, the New
York Times correspondent who got the Pentagon Papers from Daniel
Ellsberg; and Barry Sussman, the Washington Post editor who oversaw the
newspaper's coverage of the Watergate scandal.
Parry spoke on the last day and offered the following observations:
Much of this conference has focused on the glory days of American
journalism in the 1970s. And rightly so. My talk, however, will deal
with the more depressing question of why things then went so terribly
First, let me say it's been an honor to be at this conference,
especially with Neil Sheehan and Barry Sussman, who played such
important roles exposing serious crimes of state in the early to
mid-1970s. That was a time when U.S. journalism perhaps was at its best,
far from perfect, but doing what the Founders had in mind when they
afforded special protections to the American press.
In the 1970s, besides the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, there were
other important press disclosures, like the My Lai massacre story and
the CIA abuses -- from Iran to Guatemala, from Cuba to Chile. For people
around the world, American journalism was the gold standard.
Granted, that was never the full picture. There were shortcomings
even in the 1970s. You also could argue that the U.S. news media's
performance then was exceptional mostly in contrast to its failures
during the Cold War, when reporters tended to be stenographers to power,
going along to get along, including early in the Vietnam War.
Even the much-admired Walter Cronkite flacked for the early U.S.
bombing raids over Vietnam. But the press of the Seventies seemed to
have learned lessons from its earlier gullibility. And, with Richard
Nixon's resignation in 1974, it could be said that America's checks and
balances were alive and well. In newsrooms around Washington, there was
reason to be proud.
More broadly, the United States had reason to be proud. The American
constitutional Republic had shown its capacity for self-correction. Not
only had brave individuals done their jobs as professionals -- both in
media and in government -- but the nation's institutions had worked.
The press, the Congress, the courts along with an informed public had
demanded and gotten accountability and reform. Not only were Nixon and
many of his henchmen gone but Congress enacted legal changes designed to
prevent the excessive influence of political donors, to open up
government secrets to public scrutiny, to protect whistleblowers.
Again, things weren't perfect and the nation faced many challenges in
the 1970s, but one could say that democracy had been strengthened. As
painful as the process was, the system had worked.
However, the success of democracy, this victory of the rule of law,
was fragile. The struggle between dishonest pols and honest reporters --
between an engaged people and behind-the-scenes powerbrokers -- was far
from over. Indeed, a new battle was just beginning.
After Nixon's resignation, his embittered allies didn't simply run up
the white flag. They got to work ensuring that they would never
experience "another Watergate." And it wasn't just a struggle that
pitted the press against the pols.
You could say that much of the U.S. Establishment had been unnerved
by the surge of democracy that had arisen to challenge longstanding
traditions and injustices -- the civil rights movement, the women's
rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement.
There also were cultural upheavals, with the hippies and the drug
culture. It was an unsettling time for the rich white men who held most
of the levers of power.
And these folks were not about to cede power easily. They made
adjustments, yes; they gave some ground. But many were determined to
fight back and some had experience in defusing and dismantling social
movements around the world. Indeed, the CIA's decades of political and
media manipulation in the Third World and even Europe gave Nixon's
allies a playbook for how to neutralize opponents and steer a population
here at home.