Seventeen years ago The New York Times and then The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers—and fought off the Nixon administration’s attempts to stop further publication. Examining that episode afterward, a law review article by Professors Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt, Jr., of the Columbia Law School said it marked “the passing of an era” for the American press. It was an era, they said, in which there was a “symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press.” But now, by printing the secret history of the Vietnam War over strenuous official objections, the Times had “demonstrated that much of the press was no longer willing to be merely an occasionally critical associate [of the Government], devoted to common aims, but intended to become an adversary.”
A year after the Pentagon Papers, The Washington Post began looking into Watergate. What it published, in defiance of administration pressures, set in motion a process of law and politics that ended in the resignation of the President. That surely seemed to confirm what Professors Edgar and Schmidt had said. The symbiotic relationship was over. We now had an independently critical press.
I thought about Professors Edgar and Schmidt this past September when I read an editorial in The Washington Post. It was about the statement by the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, that the CIA had admitted, in secret testimony, helping to arouse anti-government protests in Nicaragua in order to provoke repression that would harm the image of the Sandinistas. The editorial was critical—of Speaker Wright, not the CIA.
The Speaker’s statement was harmful to the Nicaraguan opposition, the Post said. It noted Mr. Wright’s claim that what he said had already appeared in other news reports. But that explanation, it said sternly, failed to consider “the crucial authority that a Congressional figure can add by his confirmation.” Finally, the editorial came to the question whether the CIA had in fact helped to set off Nicaraguan protests. That would have been “incredibly stupid,” it said, and public testimony in Congress had absolved the CIA of the charge.
The CIA has in fact done some “incredibly stupid” things, in Nicaragua among other places. I think a genuinely critical press would have taken a hard look at the facts before chastising a congressional leader for improper leaking or abuse of authority in this case.
But what struck me about the editorial, and the reason I mention it now, was not so much its factual assumptions as its reverential tone. Its premise was that legitimacy rests in the executive branch of the United States government, not in the legislative. Congress, along with the rest of us, owes respect to the secrecy that the executive, with its special knowledge and expertise, deems necessary in the interest of national security.
Those were the very attitudes that the Times and the Post and other newspapers rejected when they published the Pentagon Papers. As a result of the Vietnam War they had come to realize that executive officials did not…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.