The New York Times and Washington Post betray their own Pentagon Papers principles

Back when I was a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in the mid-1990s, we were all required to take a First Amendment freedom of the press course at Columbia's School of Law during the second semester. Every Friday, we trudged over to the law school in the snow (which in our year extended well into May) to the big room with amphitheatre-style seating (which was quite a change from our usual classroom desks with typewriters) and learned all about the differences between slander and libel, what a public figure was, how a public figure differed from a private figure, what a "false light" report was, what prior restraint was, and a lot of other legal concepts we would absolutely need to know as journalists as we made our way.

In the first weeks of the course, we studied the heroism of the New York Times and other prominent media outlets in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, where we learned that the Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets courageously asserted their right and obligation to publish the truth that is out there, with the case eventually making it to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled in favor of the Times. 

One wonders what that Columbia course would be like now, given that the lesson has been scrapped by none other than the New York Times itself, and its media collaborator buddies based on their collusion with social media and the government itself to suppress the perfectly true Hunter Biden laptop revelations first reported by the New York Post.

That was observed by Matt Taibbi, who cited Michael Shellenberger's Twitter files reporting, with its unflattering revelations about the Times's behavior since.

Taibbi writes:

Newly uncovered documents show the war-gamed, choreographed response to the New York Post piece in October, 2020 — which included temporary suppression by those tech platforms Twitter and Facebook — may have been part of a broader plan to re-think basic journalistic standards in general, beyond just the one incident. This included junking what experts involved with the tabletop exercise referred to as the “Pentagon Papers Principle,” under which journalists since Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leak had “operated under a single rule: Once information is authenticated, if it is newsworthy, publish it.”

The “break” from the age-old standard was endorsed by multiple current and former figures from the Washington Post and New York Times, the two papers most associated with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Neither of the press offices of the two papers would comment, nor did individual figures named in the #TwitterFiles leaks.

 Which is quite a change from what we were taught in the 1990s.

It was led by legal eagle Vincent Blasi, an even-tempered legal scholar who could make even complicated legal concepts intelligible to non-lawyers and was co-taught with the slightly more volatile and opinionated New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis in a rigorous law school format that was open to all law students. Of course we all were impressed.

That Blasi/Lewis class was significant and is still noted in Blasi's biography at Columbia law, where Blasi still teaches.

From 1986 to 2008 he co-taught a course in the Columbia Journalism School on freedom of the press with the New York Times reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis. Blasi regularly team-teaches his law school courses and seminars with the renowned First Amendment litigators Floyd Abrams, Jameel Jaffer, and Donald Verrilli.

The two-week case study of the Pentagon Papers came at the beginning. It was taught by the modest-with-nothing-to-be-modest-about great attorney Floyd Abrams, who, (yikes to us college kids), actually participated in the Pentagon Papers case historically as one of the New York Times's effective attorneys. The Times won the case, of course, stemming from the 1971 incident of a Pentagon official named Daniel Ellsberg who leaked documents revealing that the Vietnam War was not going as smoothly as the government publicly claimed it was, prompting the public to drop support for the war, which then triggered a reaction from the Nixon administration, which tried to legally sanction the press for printing the contents.

The Supreme Court ruled otherwise, creating the legal precedent that that once information is authenticated, it is legitimate for a media outlet to publish it.

Well, now the Times has scrapped the precedent it set itself, which did lead to its preeminence as a news outlet in favor of a new Soros-y mishmash of nonsensical added principles focusing on the 'why' a document is leaked, rather than the truth of what the document says, which opened up the big can of contaminated worms surrounding the media's claim that the Hunter Biden laptop story was all about Russian disinformation so never mind the truth. Fifty-one former intelligence officials, after all, said so in a signed group letter, so it had to be true, right? We now know how credible that was, the government acting exactly like the government did during the Pentagon Papers case, trying to suppress the truth, except that this time, the Times and the rest of the press went along with it. 

Taibbi describes the disgraceful shift here:

Last December, Michael Shellenberger reported in a #TwitterFiles thread that the Aspen Institute hosted a “Hack-and-Dump Working Group” exercise in the summer of 2020 titled, “Burisma Leak,” which predicted with uncanny accuracy an upcoming derogatory story in the New York Post about Hunter Biden’s lost laptop.

The documents Shellenberger published showed how at least five media figures, including David Sanger and David McCraw of the New York Times, Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post, then-Daily Beast and future Rolling Stone editor Noah Schactmanand Rick Baker of CNN worked alongside Twitter and Facebook’s chief moderation officers, Yoel Roth and Nathaniel Gleicher, to plan a response to a hypothetical damaging exposé about Joe Biden’s son.

The “Burisma Leak” exercise predicted many elements of the real response to the New York Post’s coming Hunter Biden story, including complaints from influential Democratic congressman Adam Schiff about its “source and veracity,” and public statements from “former senior intelligence officials” falsely raising the specter of a “Russian operation.”

What a sad, sorry, about-face that is for the Times, whose reputation and power grew out of cases such as the Pentagon Papers publication, yet now has chosen the shrivel route to oblivion, siding with the liars in government instead of the truth tellers on the whistleblower side.

The Times seems to know this and is actually trying to play down its victory, based on at least one essay from its 50th anniversary commemoration coverage of the case.

Columnist Adam Liptak writes:

The Pentagon Papers case was a triumph for press freedom. Or was it?

The Supreme Court’s unsigned opinion rejecting the Nixon administration’s attempt to censor publication of a secret history of the Vietnam War was just three paragraphs long and declared only that the government had not overcome a “heavy presumption” against prior restraints — on that occasion.

The vote was, moreover, fairly close — 6 to 3. Every justice contributed a concurring or dissenting opinion, none of which got more than two votes. You need a spreadsheet to make sense of who voted for what, but the bottom line is at odds with the conventional view that the case was a flat-out First Amendment victory.

Which makes one wonder if they have some kind of guilty conscience, given their effort to downplay their own First Amendment victory since their 2020 disgrace. Even they know they chose to side with the government over reporting the truth.

With much of the press, and quite likely, much of the jschool at Columbia still looking up to the Times for direction, one indeed wonders what that First Amendment course at the law school is going to be like this year.

Image: Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0 

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