Wednesday, July 28, 2010
When the press still made us proud
By Edward Copeland
The subject of this documentary, nominated for the 2009 Oscar for documentary feature, gets spelled out fairly clearly in its rather lengthy title, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers. While the subject and film itself both are interesting, what the movie did most to me was make me sad for a time long past, in the days before cable news, when journalism seemed to be dominated by ethical professionals who believed in their sacred role in this country's history and functionality. Today, with more and more newspapers long gone and television news a joke, I viewed this documentary less as the tale of the man who leaked America's secret role in Southeast Asia dating back to Truman and more about how today's Fourth Estate fails us every day.
Directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, the documentary is narrated by Ellsberg himself, telling how the one-time Pentagon military analyst for the Johnson Administration who served under then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began to doubt the United States' mission and felt guilt over his own involvement in the conflict, particularly once he'd moved into a position at the Rand Corporation. Moved by what he saw at a war protest where anti-war activists were prepared to go to jail if they thought it would help stop the bloodshed, Ellsberg began smuggling out the voluminous history of the war to make copies once he realized that newly elected President Nixon really had no intention of ending the U.S. involvement quickly.
First, Ellsberg tries delivering the papers to members of Congress, but they were uncertain of what to do with them. Even then, those legislators must have had disdain for too much reading. Frustrated, despite fears of possible violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, that's when Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and caused the Nixon Administration (as shown on many of the Nixon tapes) to blow a gasket. The administration sued and actually got an injunction bringing a temporary halt to the Times' series and that's when the American press proved itself proud in a way it never does today. The Washington Post picked up the ball and started carrying the story where the Times left off. When they were similarly enjoined, another newspaper took up the case. In all, 17 newspapers across the country took part in telling the story of how each U.S. president from Truman through Nixon had deceived the American people about our involvement in Vietnam. Television even got into the act. Once it was determined Ellsberg was the leaker and he was on the lam, Walter Cronkite managed to get a hold of him and do an interview with him for the evening news.
Can you imagine any of the starstruck buddy-buddy members of the media acting this way today? Even more so, when the case got to the Supreme Court, do you think the bunch we have sitting there now would rule 6-3 in favor of the press on the side of the public's right to know? Everyone knows that the Vietnam War was a tragic time in U.S. history, but for me knowing that now we live in a time where the media doesn't do its job and the courts wouldn't back them up is even sadder. Perhaps we will soon see a test with Wikileaks' release of more than 92,000 Afghanistan war documents revealing, among other things, that Pakistan aids the Taliban as much as it helps us (as if we didn't already know that). It is telling that WikiLeaks chose to go publications such as The Guardian and der Spiegel first since the former big names in newspapers now seem firmly entrenched as another arm of the establishment. That may not have been the filmmakers's intent, but that's what The Most Dangerous Man in America left me with.
As for the film as a documentary, it's fine, if basically of the talking head variety, though it is interesting to see Sen. Mike Gravel, the Alaska Democrat, when he was a vital member of the Senate, filibustering against the draft and reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record as opposed to the image of him as the loony old man who was on stage at those 2008 Democratic presidential primary debates and made those odd, though funny, commercials. It does lead to a funny part of the film with an animated depiction of the handoff between Ellsberg and Gravel of the papers.
Of course, the sad truth is that while it was a proud moment for the press and the Supreme Court and the Nixon Administration's chicanery led to Ellsberg getting off as a free man, all it did was further raise opposition to the war. It still dragged on for a few more years until Nixon finally was driven from office and President Ford pulled everyone out. What sort of end do we face in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are there the equivalent of Pentagon Papers out there? Would anyone publish them? Would it make a difference?