Competing journalistic models

The 1970s had two major events that had implications for journalism. One was the publication in June 1971 by the New York Times of a top secret history of the US military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967, now called the Pentagon Papers, that had been leaked to it by a then-unknown mid-level intelligence analyst named Daniel Ellsberg.

As Wikipedia says:

The papers revealed that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US. The most damaging revelations in the papers revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had misled the public regarding their intentions.

What was devastating about the Pentagon Papers was not that they revealed great secrets. After all, these ‘secret’ wars and bombings were not really secret at all. The people in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam knew they were being bombed and this news was well known around the world and even known among the elite circles in US government and the media. The only group for whom it was a secret was the American public.

Doonesbury had a series of cartoon strips ridiculing this state of affairs. Perhaps the one that most people who remember those times will recall immediately is the one in which Phred, a Vietnamese guerilla with the National Liberation Front, is searching for a famous museum in Cambodia and comes across an old couple standing amidst the ruins of a bombed out building. The old couple strongly resembles the pair in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, except that they are wearing traditional Cambodian clothing. The strip has this sequence:

First panel
PHRED: The museum! What happened to it? It’s… It’s totally demolished!

Second panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I know, boy, I know! I was the curator.
PHRED: You wretched soul! Did this happen during the secret bombings?

Third panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: Secret bombings? Boy, there wasn’t any secret about them! Everyone here knew! I did, and my wife, she knew, too! She was with me, and I remarked on them!

Last panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I said “Look, Martha, here come the bombs!”
OLD WOMAN: It’s true, he did.

Ellsberg said he released the documents to expose unconstitutional behavior by a succession of governments of both parties in prosecuting a wrongful war. What shocked and angered the government about Ellsberg’s action was not that this leak created any danger for anyone. After all, it was just a history whose timeline ended four years earlier. What caused the consternation was that this information was now in the public domain and people realized how much the government had been lying to it during the critical period when it was escalating the war.

The other major journalistic event of the 1970s was the expose by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the shenanigans of Richard Nixon’s administration that eventually led to his resignation in 1973. They had access to a high level and anonymous source within the government nicknamed Deep Throat (revealed in 2004 to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) whose information was helpful in guiding them in their investigations.

The Pentagon Papers and Watergate represent two very different models of journalism. The former model involves making public the actual documentary record of events, the internal reports and memos that the government produces so that the public could see for themselves (at least partially) what high level government officials saw and make their own judgments. Official government documents almost always have useful and reliable information, as legendary journalist I. F. Stone knew full well. He uncovered the truth about what was going on in the Korean War (revealed in his excellent 1952 book The Hidden History of the Korean War) by reading official documents and communiqués and not paying much attention to press briefings and the like where officials can say one thing one day and another the next, depending on what they want the public to believe.

Victor Navasky says that Stone,

although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

Internal memoranda and other documents are prepared by professionals and people on the ground who know what is actually going on and are obliged to tell it like it is to their superiors. They often have less of an ideological ax to grind or turf battles to fight and in fact are often idealistic people who actually care about truth and honesty in public life. But their reports are often distorted or suppressed by high-level political appointees pursuing a political agenda and the professionals are aghast and outraged by the discrepancy between what they know to be true and what is told to the public. Some of them, like Daniel Ellsberg, are pushed over the edge and become willing to become whistleblowers at great risk to their careers and provide information to journalists without expecting anything in return, except to get the truth out to the public.

Next: The rise of the Watergate model of journalism and the challenge of WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Elizabeth Warren for Sheriff!

It looks like Elizabeth Warren is getting quite a posse in support of her being named as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


  1. henry says

    I think Coach’s comment are an excellent example of the point I wanted to make in your entry on Captcha or not to Captcha.

  2. says

    I can see the arguments from both sides of this issue. Having spent 14 years defending America from threats foreign and domestic; I can say some thing that are done must stay a secret. But those reasons vary. Some times it is to protect sources. If the “enemy” know “we” know they can then figure out who is talking and they get killed. Or that maybe they change how they operate to avoid observation by satellites or other technical means.
    Another might be that Country A allows camps for “freedom fighters” from country B to exist but not support. “We” think those “Freedom Fighters” need to be removed to protect county B. We have good relations with both countries but do not want to mess that up. Results are a secret bombing. Of course we want it to be a secret and maintain plausible deniability.
    As for the argument to disclose, I think enough people in the Media pushing their own agendas have voiced those points enough but for self serving purposes.
    I miss having a fair and objective media that recognized hype for what it was and not a great opportunity to please their advertisers.

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