A thought-provoking film
I recently watched the film “The Most Dangerous Man in America, ” (watch the trailer here) and although it isn’t told from a journalist’s perspective, it raises questions pertaining to journalism ethics. For those who haven’t seen the film, it tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. During the beginning of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg worked for the Defense Department and searched for evidence of atrocities by the Vietcong so that the President could have just cause to expand the war into North Vietnam. Later, Ellsberg betrayed the presidency by releasing the Pentagon Papers—a study tracing three decades of U.S. involvement in the war.
The watchdog is restrained
The New York Times made a critical decision on June 13, 1971 when they first published the Papers. By doing so, the Times performed its role of “government watchdog” more completely than ever. Two days later the government obtained a restraining order against the Times, and as other publications followed suit in publishing the Papers, they too were restrained.
Blurring the lines of ethical and treasonous
One can debate Ellsberg’s actions as either patriotic or treasonous, but a similar debate can be extended to the Times. Were they ethical in publishing the Papers? In order to answer this question, I think it’s best to imagine the scene in 1971, when press wasn’t so leery of the government, and the entire country viewed Lyndon B. Johnson in a grandfatherly way. In this video former Times journalists speak about the difficult decision the editors faced—they were looking treason in the face by publishing the documents. Max Frankel makes a very interesting point in this discussion. He says, “You should understand that the debate was very complicated because the other issue was if it becomes known that we had this material and chose not to print it, what does that do to the reputation of the Times?”
And that is what I find most intriguing. The Times editors weighed the consequences, and the publication's reputation came out ahead. Intriguing stuff.