A little less than two years ago, as Donald Trump was moving ever closer to wrapping up the Republican presidential nomination, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos made a rather remarkable promise. “I have a lot of very sensitive and vulnerable body parts,” he said in a public conversation with the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron. “If need be, they can all go through the wringer rather than do the wrong thing.”
At the time, Trump was attacking the Post and Amazon, the retail behemoth that Bezos had founded, by threatening to launch an antitrust investigation and end Amazon’s (nonexistent) tax breaks. So Bezos’ promise carried with it a very specific meaning, especially for those steeped in Watergate lore.
Movies about historical events are often meant to tell us more about the present than the past, especially in the hands of an overly earnest director like Steven Spielberg. His 2012 film “Lincoln,” for instance, depicted a president who didn’t let his high principles get in the way of some down-and-dirty dealmaking with recalcitrant members of Congress. You know, just like Obama should have been doing.
Spielberg’s latest, “The Post,” is more deft and subtle than “Lincoln.” Still, it serves as much as a commentary on current-day events as it does as a drama about the press and the Pentagon Papers. Then as now, The New York Times and The Washington Post were competing to expose high-level government wrongdoing. Then as now, their nemesis was a vindictive president who hated the press. The message, at least for the anti-Trump audience that is most likely to be enthralled by “The Post,” is that journalism will save us. Help is on the way.
The Pentagon Papers were the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. The documents showed that President Lyndon Johnson and other administration officials were aware that the war was going badly even as they publicly professed optimism — and thus allowed American soldiers to be killed for what they knew was a lost cause. This was especially galling to Richard Nixon, who was president in 1971, when the documents were leaked, and who was prosecuting the war with cruel gusto. The Times got and published the papers first, and Times partisans are grousing that Spielberg should have made a movie about that instead. For instance, Roy Harris wrote for Poynter that “the overall story of the Pentagon Papers as journalism seems somehow twisted by the Post-centric focus of the movie.”
Critics are missing the point. The Times gets its full due in “The Post” for breaking the story. But Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s fierce attempt to play catch-up, and publisher Katharine Graham’s courageous decision to publish the documents against the advice of her lawyers and advisers, was a signal moment in American journalism, establishing the Post as the near-equal of the mighty Times.
The script for “The Post” reads like it was ripped from the pages of Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History,” and from David Halberstam’s magnum opus about The Washington Post and several other media institutions, “The Powers That Be.” The Post of 1971 was a financially marginal regional paper with more in common with The Boston Globe or The Philadelphia Inquirer than with the Times. Graham decided to raise much-needed cash by reorganizing the paper as a publicly traded company. The crisis over the Pentagon Papers blew up at exactly the same moment, putting the Post in real danger: if it published the documents and was found to have broken the law, its initial public offering could go down the tubes and the company could go out of business.
Graham made her decision after being called away from a social event, a sequence that is depicted faithfully in the movie. “Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote in “Personal History.” And she quotes Bradlee as saying later:
That was a key moment in the life of this paper. It was just sort of the graduation of the Post into the highest ranks. One of our unspoken goals was to get the world to refer to the Post and The New York Times in the same breath, which they previously hadn’t done. After the Pentagon Papers, they did.
The U.S. Supreme Court ended up vindicating both the Times and the Post by ruling, 6-3, that the Nixon administration’s attempts to prevent publication were an unconstitutional abridgement of the First Amendment. As my WGBH News fellow contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Boston Phoenix some years ago, that didn’t stop Nixon from attempting to prosecute the newspapers under the Espionage Act, a relic of World War I that is still with us. But Nixon’s efforts went nowhere.
“The Post” is not an eat-your-broccoli movie. It’s highly entertaining. Tom Hanks is terrific as Bradlee, and Meryl Streep turns in an accurate Graham, though it sometimes feels more like an elaborate impersonation than a fully realized role.
Streep’s Graham is the center of a subplot that, again, has as much to do with 2018 as it does with 1971. Although Graham had been leading the Post since 1963, when her husband, Phil Graham, shot himself in an apparent suicide, in “The Post” we see her grow and, finally, embrace her leadership role in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s a tale of female empowerment that is especially relevant right now. As my Northeastern colleague Meg Heckman wrote for USA Today:
In a refreshing departure from the shallow, oversexualized way Hollywood typically depicts women in journalism, Meryl Streep portrays Graham as a serious newspaperwoman navigating complex social and political challenges. Her role should be a blueprint for a new kind of popular culture, one that helps repair a climate where, as the #MeToo movement has revealed, media companies routinely get away with allowing sexual harassment and assault to fester.
One of my favorite characters in “The Post” is Nixon himself, whom we see back-to through a White House window, talking on the phone and threatening his enemies in the press. (We hear actual tapes of the Trickster.) And that brings me back to what “The Post” is really about.
In Donald Trump we have a president who hates the media and threatens his enemies like none since Nixon. Like Nixon, Trump is being investigated on multiple fronts — by House and Senate committees, by a special counsel, and by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Spielberg, in effect, is offering us a soothing message: Our institutions work. Look at what happened the last time.
But the past is not always prologue. The world of the 1970s was one without Fox, without alternative facts, and without a president who denounced press coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” This time around, not only is it unclear whether the truth will be revealed — it’s even more unclear whether it will even matter.
Hillary Clinton had seemed like the inevitable Democratic nominee for so long—not just in the current campaign, but eight years ago as well—that she tends not to get the credit she’s due for what is by any measure a remarkable accomplishment.
And it’s not just that she’s the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major party, though that is legitimately a big deal. She also staged a comeback unlike any in recent political history. Since her enemies like to compare her to Richard Nixon, she ought to get the benefit of that comparison as well—as she does in a piece by Peter Beinart at the Atlantic, who writes:
In purely political terms, Clinton’s victory—after losing the Democratic nomination in 2008—constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.
Clinton’s fall from grace eight years ago was more devastating than we might remember, Beinart argues, noting that major party figures such as Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and Chuck Schumer were so appalled at the prospect of a Clinton campaign that they urged Barack Obama (some openly, some privately) to run against her. Civil-rights leader John Lewis even unendorsed her and switched to Obama.
“Over the past 30 years, no American political figure has absorbed as many blows as Clinton,” Beinart writes. “And none has responded with more tenacity and grit.”
That theme is also reflected in Amy Chozick’s “how she won” story in the New York Times: “She may not be the orator President Obama is, or the retail politician her husband was. But Mrs. Clinton’s steely fortitude in this campaign has plainly inspired older women, black voters and many others who see in her perseverance a kind of mirror to their own struggles.”
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty reminds us of Clinton’s shortcomings as a politician: “Not one for mega-rallies, she prefers small, scripted settings where she can discuss the policy intricacies of heroin addiction, mental health treatment, college debt or gun control—all the while keeping her campaign press corps at arm’s length. There have also been times when her tone-deafness could be spectacular.”
Thanks to the Associated Press’s questionable decision to proclaim Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday evening (see this Facebook post by Bill Mitchell of Poynter), today’s headlines are anticlimactic. The print edition of the Times leads with “Clinton Claims the Democratic Nomination,” which feels like an update of Tuesday’s awkward banner: “Clinton Reaches Historic Mark, A.P. Says.” Today’s Post offers “Clinton celebrates victory,” and it’s less than a full page across. On Monday the Post went six columns with “Clinton reaches magic number for historic nomination.”
As of Wednesday morning, Bernie Sanders is vowing to stay in the race even though Clinton has now won a majority of pledged delegates as well as superdelegates, and has received nearly 3.7 million more votes. Media and political voices are strongly suggesting Sanders’s refusal to concede might change over the next few days as reality sinks in for him and his supporters.
But after reading this piece in Politico by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti, I’m not so sure. According to their reporting, Sanders is the chief hothead in his own campaign, continually overruling his advisers in favor of more aggression. “More than any of them,” they write, “Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect—all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.”
So much for party unity. Then again, the self-styled democratic socialist has only been a Democrat for a few months.
Finally, Tuesday may have been Hillary Clinton’s day, but the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, came close to dominating it, as he does in practically every news cycle.
This time it wasn’t a matter of the cable networks giving him more attention than he deserved. Instead, there was actual news, as Republicans staged a collective freakout over Trump’s racist statements about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as Matt Viser reports in the Boston Globe; House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s comments as “racist” while sticking by his endorsement (“Everywhere Paul Ryan turns, there’s the smell of Trump” is the headline on Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column); and Trump himself issued a nonapology in the afternoon while delivering a rare prepared speech at night in which he viciously attacked Clinton but avoided his usual excesses.
At this point, conservatives are hopelessly divided over how they should respond to the demagogue at the top of the GOP ticket. A Wall Street Journal editorial criticizes conservatives for pressuring Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to abandon Trump, while Jonah Goldberg of National Review, a leading anti-Trump conservative journal, blasts Ryan for not being tough enough: “Because Trump did nothing to earn Ryan’s endorsement, the presumptive nominee may conclude that he needn’t negotiate with the GOP establishment; he can just count on its eventual submission.”
Meanwhile, at the Weekly Standard—whose editor, Bill Kristol, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince a conservative to mount an independent campaign—Jay Cost pens an open letter to Mitt Romney begging the former Massachusetts governor to run. Cost begins:
I write to you not as a fellow conservative, not as a fellow partisan, but as a citizen of our republic. You have served your nation admirably for many years and by any ordinary standard are entitled to a happy retirement. But these are extraordinary times, and your nation still has need of your service. I respectfully implore you to run for president as an independent candidate in 2016.
It’s not likely to happen. Even if a significant number of voters could be persuaded to support an independent, it may be too late for such a candidate to get on the ballot in enough states for it to matter. (I should note that the Libertarian ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is in fact on the ballot in all 50 states.)
Still, Cost’s desperate plea is a sign of the straits in which the Republicans find themselves with Trump at the top of the ticket.
Someone pointed out the other day that the Iowa caucuses were just four months ago, whereas we still have five months to go before the November election. If you’re sick of this campaign, you’re far from alone. Unfortunately, we’ve just gotten started.
More than 40 years after he resigned as president, Richard Nixon remains the lodestar for political skullduggery. And so it was when Donald Trump threatened to retaliate against Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in response to news that the Post is siccing 20 reporters on Trump to look into every aspect of his life and career.
Details about the Post’s Trump project, which will include a book, emanated from the lips of Post associate editor Bob Woodward, a twist that made it all the more cosmically significant. For it was Woodward, along with fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who helped end Nixon’s presidency in 1974—but not before the Post had endured some fearsome attacks from the Nixon White House that threatened not just the newspaper but the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press.
As you may have heard, Bezos’s day job is running Amazon, the online retailing behemoth that he founded. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told Fox News host Sean Hannity that Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem” and “is getting away with murder, tax-wise.” He added that Bezos is “using the Washington Post for power so that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed.”
Never mind that there is zero evidence for Trump’s accusation. His implied threat was utterly Nixonian in its stark assertion that he’d use the powers of government to harm Bezos in retaliation for journalism that he doesn’t like.
The roots of Nixon’s hatred for the Post extend back to the 1950s. David Halberstam, in his book The Powers That Be, wrote that it began over the cartoonist Herbert Block. Herblock, as he was known, regularly portrayed Nixon as a malign figure with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and his work was syndicated in hundreds of papers around the country. According to Halberstam, Herblock’s cartoons “became part of Nixon’s permanent dossier, reflecting all the public doubts and questions about him.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that Nixon attempted to translate that anger into action. In 1971, the Post joined the New York Times in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which showed that American officials had continued the fighting out of political cowardice for years after concluding that it was unwinnable.
According to then-publisher Katharine Graham in her autobiography, Personal History, the Nixon White House issued “a not very veiled threat” that the paper might face a criminal prosecution if it didn’t turn over its copy of the Pentagon Papers to the government. At the time, the Post was on the verge of becoming a publicly traded company, and it would have been devastating to the paper’s plan to raise money from the stock market if it had been convicted of a crime. And as my fellow WGBH News contributor Harvey Silverglate wrote for the Phoenix newspapers some years back, the Nixon administration actually considered prosecuting the Times and the Post even after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the papers’ right to publish.
Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal brought about perhaps the most infamous threat ever made against a newspaper. When Bernstein asked Nixon henchman John Mitchell to comment on a particularly damaging story, Mitchell responded: “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” More substantively, Nixon allies arose from the swamp to challenge the Post’s ownership of two television stations in Florida—challenges that faded away once Nixon had resigned from office.
“Henry Kissinger told me he felt that Nixon had always hated the Post,” Graham wrote, quoting Kissinger as saying of Nixon: “He was convinced that the Post had it in for him.” As Graham described it, the Post’s reporting on Nixon during the Watergate years became an existential crisis. If the paper hadn’t been able to prove Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in and related crimes and thus force Nixon from office, the Post itself would have been destroyed.
Although the showdown between Nixon and the Post is the most dramatic example of the government’s attempting to destroy its journalistic adversaries, it is not the only one.
In the early days of World War II, after Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune reported that the United States may have cracked Japanese codes, President Franklin Roosevelt considered trying McCormick for treason, which could have resulted in the death penalty. FDR was talked out of it only because his advisers convinced him that such a drastic measure would only serve to alert the Japanese.
More recently, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department raised the possibility that the New York Times and the Washington Post could be prosecuted under espionage laws for reporting on a National Security Agency surveillance program (the Times) and on the rendition of terrorism suspects to countries that engage in torture (the Post).
And, of course, there is President Barack Obama’s relentless pursuit of government officials who leak information to the media—a pursuit that has ensnared a number of journalists, including James Risen of the New York Times. Risen fought the government for seven years so that he wouldn’t have to reveal the identity of the sources who had told him how the CIA had sought to wreak havoc with Iran’s nuclear program. Last year Risen called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”
But note that Roosevelt’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s attacks on the press were grounded in legitimate concerns about national security, misguided though Bush may have been and Obama may be. (It’s hard to argue with FDR’s fury at McCormick, whose actions would not be protected by even the most expansive reading of the First Amendment.)
By contrast, Trump, like Nixon during Watergate, would go after the press purely for personal reasons—not by denouncing the media (or, rather, not just by denouncing the media) but by abusing his powers as president. Bring negative information to light about Nixon and you might lose your television stations. Report harshly on Trump and your tax status might be threatened—and you may even face an antitrust suit.
This is the way authoritarians reinforce their power—through fear and intimidation, the rule of law be damned. Despite all the benefit he has received in the form of free media, Trump hates the press. He has threatened to rewrite the libel laws, and now he’s threatened the owner of one of our great newspapers.
Trump is a menace on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can add this: Like Nixon, he is a threat to the First Amendment, our most important tool in holding the government accountable to the governed.
Henry Kissinger is back in the news thanks to Bernie Sanders, who went after Hillary Clinton at Thursday night’s debate for taking Kissinger’s advice. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders said, to which Clinton replied: “I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas.” (I am not doing the full exchange justice. Click here for the debate transcript and search for “Kissinger.”)
In following the debate on Twitter, I was surprised at the extent to which people seemed bemused that Sanders would bring up someone who hasn’t served in public office for 40 years. Yet Sanders’s critique certainly struck me as relevant. To this day, many observers refer to Kissinger as a war criminal for his actions as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. And, frankly, the case against him is strong, particularly with regard to the Nixon administration’s secret war in Cambodia and its role in the overthrow and assassination of Chile’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.
In 2001 the late journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a 40,000-word, two-part article for Harper’s that was later published as a book called The Trial of Henry Kissinger. I wrote about Hitchens’s polemic for The Boston Phoenix, summarizing Hitchens’s evidence in some detail and comparing it to what other Kissinger biographers had found. My conclusion: a bit simplistic but compelling nevertheless.
So how closely associated is Hillary Clinton with Henry Kissinger? Certainly there’s an element of guilt-by-association in Sanders’s accusation, which is his M.O. Count me as among those who are tired of Sanders’s constant insinuations that anyone who takes campaign contributions from Wall Street is by definition corrupt.
Still, this New York Times piece by Amy Chozick makes clear that Clinton didn’t just accidentally bump into Kissinger one night at Zumba class. Chozick points out that when Clinton reviewed Kissinger’s book World Order for The Washington Post, Clinton wrote: “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state.” Clinton continued: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”
I don’t think we have to worry that Clinton will be giving the 92-year-old Kissinger an office at the White House if she is elected president. Still, Sanders has identified not just a political problem for Clinton but a substantive one. She needs to address it.
Is The Washington Post “more authoritative” than The New York Times? You might expect investigative reporting legend Bob Woodward to say so. After all, Woodward has spent nearly his entire career at the Post, and institutional loyalty runs deep.
Still, Woodward’s remarks — delivered at a stop on his latest book tour Tuesday night in Harvard Square — come at a time when they’re likely to garner more attention than they otherwise might. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who bought the Post from the Graham family nearly two years ago, is sinking money and resources into the paper. And media analysts like Ken Doctor are saying that the Post is making its first serious run at the Times in many years.
Asked by a member of the audience about changes in the media business, Woodward responded with an unsolicited paean to Bezos. “I think he’s helping us as a business,” Woodward said. “It’s a better website. I find things much more authoritative, quite frankly, than The New York Times, to be honest.”
And when asked by his interlocutor, Washington insider-turned-Harvard academic David Gergen, whether newspapers remain committed to investigative reporting, Woodward replied: “I know The Washington Post is, because I asked Jeff Bezos. He has the money. We talked about this. He said I could quote him on this, and I will. He said, ‘Rest assured, Marty’ — Baron, the editor — ‘will have the resources he needs.’”
Woodward will forever be remembered as one-half of the twentysomething reporting duo (with Carl Bernstein) who broke open the Watergate story and brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Now a no-longer-boyish 72, Woodward was on hand to promote his latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men.” In it, Woodward tells the story of Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the existence of the White House taping system before a congressional committee, thus providing the evidence that Nixon really was a crook.
Several hundred people crowded into the First Parish Church for Woodward’s reading, sponsored by the Harvard Book Store. The book is based on some 40 hours’ worth of interviews Woodward conducted with Butterfield, as well as a trove of documents. Butterfield, Woodward said, provided invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Nixon White House, especially of the early years. “For two years, there was no taping system,” he said. “In a sense Butterfield became the tape recorder.”
The event began on a light-hearted note, with Gergen — who served four presidents, including Nixon — asking, “When did you all sense that you were on to something much bigger than you’d thought?” Woodward’s response: “When Nixon resigned.”
The conversation, though, took a darker turn as Woodward described Nixon’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation in “The Last of the President’s Men” is that Nixon ordered more and more bombs to be dropped during 1972 — the year he was up for re-election — even though he secretly acknowledged it had accomplished “zilch.” The reason, Woodward said, was that polling showed the bombing campaign was popular with the American public.
“It’s close to a war crime,” Woodward said.
Equally nauseating was Nixon’s response to journalist Seymour Hersh’s revelation in 1969 that American troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai. Nixon ordered Butterfield to go after everyone involved in exposing it, including the soldier who blew the whistle, Life and Time magazines and a perceived enemy who Woodward said was described by Nixon as “a liberal Jew.”
The mood brightened considerably when Gergen asked Woodward how he would go about investigating the leading 2016 presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Woodward said he would talk about Trump first, and then brought down the house with this: “Can we ask the audience a question? How many people want the next president to be somebody who has no touch with reality?”
As for Clinton, Woodward turned the tables and questioned Gergen.
Woodward: “You worked with her.”
Gergen: “I did.”
Woodward: “Do you trust her?”
Gergen paused before answering: “I have found — I don’t think she — I don’t think she tells lies. I think she’s careful with the truth.”
Woodward, after the laughs had faded away: “You didn’t get to work for all these presidents for no reason.”
Notwithstanding Woodward’s enthusiasm for Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post, his talk was, in some respects, an elegy for the kind of journalism Woodward represents. Whether you prefer the Post or the Times, at their best they stand for a rigor that often seems to be on the wane.
For all the faults of the 1970s-era press, there was something approaching a national consensus that made it possible for a story like Watergate to keep building. These days, the media are too fragmented, with too many so-called news outlets aligned with partisan interests. Fox News chief Roger Ailes would release his flying monkeys to go after the liberal media and it would all end in a standoff.
Though Woodward’s establishment-oriented journalism is sometimes criticized, including by none other than the aforementioned Hersh, he nevertheless represents something important: the power of the press to do good through thorough, indefatigable reporting aimed at rooting out the truth rather than serving some ideological cause.
Thanks for the assist from Kylie Ayal, a third-year journalism student at Boston University, who supplied me with a copy of her audio file of the event after I managed to erase mine by mistake.
Kinsley is technically correct in asserting that the government has — and should have — the final word when it comes to deciding whether secret information should be made public. Thus I part company with the likes of Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan, who, in a post headlined “Michael Kinsley Comes Out Against Journalism,” fulminates: “Michael Kinsley does not believe that a free press should be allowed to [expose official secrets]. He believes that the decision to tell government secrets ‘must ultimately be made by the government.'”
It’s Nolan’s “should be allowed” that bears scrutiny. In fact, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may act to prevent secrets from being revealed if those revelations would cause a serious breach of national security. Here is how the Court put it in the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota:
No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.
The government may also prosecute both leakers and journalists post-publication, as a majority of the Court all but invited the Nixon administration to do in the Pentagon Papers case — and as Harvey Silverglate explains in this 2006 Boston Phoenix essay.
If you think about it, how could it be otherwise? It’s so easy to conjure up scenarios involving nuclear weapons, terrorism and the like under which censorship and prosecution would be justified that it’s not even worth the effort to spell them out (although Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes tried to do just that in Near).
But I emphatically part company with Kinsley over his sneering, dismissive tone, and his shocking failure to understand the role of a free press (or even a press that’s not quite as free as Hamilton Nolan imagines) in a democratic society. Because if the ultimate authority rests with the government, there are nevertheless times when leakers, individual journalists and the institutional press must stand up to the government and risk its wrath in order to serve the public interest. That’s what The New York Times and The Washington Post did in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s own secret history of the Vietnam War.
And I would argue that that’s what Snowden, Greenwald, Barton Gellman (curiously absent from Special Agent Kinsley’s arrest warrant), The Guardian and The Washington Post did in exposing the NSA’s practices.
I just learned that Joe McGinniss has died. McGinniss was the author of a very good book about Richard Nixon and an atrociously bad one about Jeffrey MacDonald, the Green Beret physician who’s been in prison for decades after being convicted of killing his family — a case that I believe was deeply flawed.
Here is what I wrote for Book Forum in 2012 about Errol Morris’ “A Wilderness of Error,” which attempts to set the record straight.
Last January, not long after the young Internet genius Aaron Swartz committed suicide, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote powerfully about the abusive prosecutorial tactics that may have led to his death.
Swartz faced a lengthy federal prison sentence for downloading academic articles at MIT without authorization. Even though the publisher, JSTOR, declined to press charges, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz brought a case agains Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. As Silverglate put it, the law is “a notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad.”
Silverglate’s article was republished in Media Nation with the permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, where it originally appeared. And it was far and away the most viewed article in Media Nation in 2013.
Today we present Media Nation’s top 10 posts for 2013, based on statistics compiled by WordPress.com. They represent a range of topics — from the vicissitudes of talk radio to a media conflict of interest, from Rolling Stone’s controversial cover image of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the sad, sudden death of The Boston Phoenix.
The top 10 is by no means representative of the year in media. Certainly the biggest story about journalism in 2013 involved the National Security Agency secrets revealed by Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post — a story that did not make the cut at Media Nation.
Here, then, is our unrepresentative sample for the past 12 months.
2. The New Republic’s new owner crosses a line (Jan. 28). A little more than a year ago, the venerable New Republic was saved by Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who is using some of his fortune to restore the magazine to relevance and fiscal health. But he crossed an ethical line last January when he took part in an interview with President Obama, whose campaign he had worked on, and tossed a series of softball questions his way. At the time I wrote that Hughes was guilty of “no more than a minor misstep.” So how did it rise to No. 2? It turns out that a number of right-leaning websites picked up on it, bringing a considerable amount of traffic to Media Nation that I normally don’t receive.
3. Dailies go wild over sports controversies (Aug. 30). Four months after publishing this item, I find it hard to make heads or tails of what was going on. But essentially Globe-turned-Herald sportswriter Ron Borges contributed to a Rolling Stone article on the Aaron Hernandez murder case, which generated some tough criticism from both the Globe and the well-known blog Boston Sports Media Watch. That was followed almost immediately by a Globe article on the ratings collapse of sports radio station WEEI (AM 850), which brought yet more tough talk from, among others, ’EEI morning co-host Gerry Callahan, who also happens to write a column for the Herald. Yes, Boston is a small town.
4. Rolling Stone’s controversial cover (July 17). I thought it was brilliant. I still do. The accusion that Rolling Stone was trying to turn Dzhokhar Tsarnaev into some sort of pop-culture hero is absurd and offensive — and not borne out by the well-reported article that the cover was designed to illustrate.
5. Glenn Ordway walks the ratings plank(Feb. 14). Ordway built sports talker WEEI into a ratings monster only to see its numbers crater in the face of competition from the Sports Hub (WBZ-FM, 98.5). Ordway was by no means the problem with WEEI. But station management decided it could no longer afford his $500,000 contract, and so that was it for the Big O.
6. A big moment for The Boston Globe(Dec. 17). It was actually a big year for the Globe, from its riveting coverage of the marathon bombing and the standoff that led to the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the paper’s acquisition by Red Sox principal owner John Henry. But two days in mid-December were emblematic of the paper’s continuing excellence and relevance — a long, detailed exposé of the Tsarnaev family that revealed Dzhokhar, rather than his older brother, Tamerlan, may have been the driving force behind the bombing; an investigation into a case of alleged “medical child abuse” that pitted a Connecticut family against Children’s Hospital; and a nationally celebrated series of tweets by staff reporter Billy Baker about a Boston teenager from a poor family who had been admitted to Yale.
7. The Boston Phoenix reaches the end of the road (March 14). A stalwart of the alternative-weekly scene and my professional home from 1991 to 2005, the Phoenix was a voice of incalculable importance. But with even the legendary Village Voice struggling to survive, the alt-weekly moment may have passed. At the time of its death, the Phoenix had more than 100,000 readers — but little revenue, as advertising had dried up and both the print edition and the website were free. I scribbled a few preliminary thoughts in this post, and later wrote something more coherent for PBS MediaShift.
8. The return of Jim Braude and Margery Eagan (Feb. 6). Eagan and Braude’s morning show was the one bright spot on WTKK Radio, an otherwise run-of-the-mill right-wing talk station that had been taken off the air a month earlier. So it was good news indeed when the pair was hired to host “Boston Public Radio” from noon to 2 p.m. on public station WGBH (89.7 FM). (Note: (I am a paid contributor to WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” where Eagan is a frequent panelist.)
9. Joe Scarborough grapples with history — and loses(Feb. 17). Asking cable blowhard Scarborough to write a review for The New York Times Book Review about the relationship between Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon could have been a smart, counterintuitive move. But it only works if the writer in question is, you know, smart.
10. The bell tolls for WTKK Radio (Jan. 3). As I already mentioned, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan were able to walk away from the rubble of WTKK, which was shut down by corporate owner Greater Media and turned into an urban music station. Just a few years earlier the station had been a ratings success with trash-talking hosts like Jay Severin and Michael Graham. But tastes change — sometimes for the better.
Photo (cc) by Maria Jesus V and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
As you have no doubt already heard, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wrote on Monday that British security agents recently visited the newspaper’s headquarters and insisted that hard drives containing leaked documents from Edward Snowden be smashed and destroyed in their presence. The incident, Rusbridger said, took place after a “very senior government official” demanded that the materials either be returned or disposed of.
Rusbridger’s report followed the nearly nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Greenwald has written the bulk of The Guardian’s articles about the Snowden documents, and Miranda had been visiting filmmaker Laura Poitras, who has worked extensively with Snowden and Greenwald, in Berlin.
We are already being told that such thuggery couldn’t happen in the United States because of our constitutional protections for freedom of the press. For instance, Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review writes, “Prior restraint is the nuclear option in government relations with the press and unfortunately, the British don’t have a First Amendment.”
But in fact, there is nothing to stop the U.S. government from censoring the media with regard to revelations such as those contained in the Snowden files — nothing, that is, except longstanding tradition. And respect for that tradition is melting away, as I argued recently in this space.
The case for censorship, ironically, was made in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that severely limited the circumstances under which the government could censor. The decision, Near v. Minnesota (1931), was a great victory for the press, as the ruling held that Jay Near could not be prohibited from resuming publication of his scandal sheet, which had been shut down by state authorities (of course, he could be sued for libel after the fact).
What’s relevant here is how Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes described the limited circumstances under which the government could engage in prior restraint:
No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops. On similar grounds, the primary requirements of decency may be enforced against obscene publications. The security of the community life may be protected against incitements to acts of violence and the overthrow by force of orderly government.
The text I’ve bolded means that the government may, in fact, engage in censorship if by so doing it would prevent a breach of national security so grave that it could be likened to the examples cited by Hughes. That’s what the Nixon administration relied on in seeking to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
The Supreme Court, in allowing publication of the Pentagon Papers to resume (New York Times Co. v. United States), wrestled extensively with Near v. Minnesota, and ultimately decided that revealing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War did not amount to the sort of immediate, serious breach of national security that Hughes envisioned.
But who knows what the court would say if the Obama administration took similar action against The Washington Post, which has published several important reports based on the Snowden documents — including last week’s Barton Gellman bombshell that the National Security Agency had violated privacy protections thousands of times?
Unlike the Pentagon Papers, the Snowden documents pertain to ongoing operations, which cuts in favor of censorship. Cutting against it, of course, is that there’s a strong public-interest case to be made in favor of publication, given the long-overdue national debate that Snowden’s revelations have ignited.
The bottom line, though, is that there is no constitutional ban that would prevent the White House from seeking to stop publication of the Snowden documents — even if U.S. officials are unlike to engage in the sort of theatrics that reportedly took place in The Guardian’s basement.