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The view from the couch: The Pentagon Papers, redux

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Doubtless, comparisons of Sunday's WikiLeaks.org publication of tens of thousands of Afghan war documents will be made to the The New York Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers, a RAND study of Vietnam-era documents of 1971. But, aspects of the history of that release of government "secrets" need to be discussed in the context of the WikiLeaks leak. Daniel Ellsberg, who released the copy of the Pentagon Papers, had participated in the study itself while at RAND, a California think tank that does military work, among other things. It took Ellsberg a while to find someone to actually publish the papers. And, it turns out, The Times had the WikiLeaks documents, but agreed to hold their release for some months.

Ah, the merchandising of news! Like Hollywood films, the media likes a good, well-timed rollout.

The differences between the two batches of documents, almost 40 years apart, are far more than the similarities. Sure, they show that the government lies, etc., but it was the effect on journalism that the release of the Pentagon Papers caused that was almost more important back in the early 70s. Journalism as it was practiced post World War II, was irrevocably altered by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. I don't expect present journalism will be much affected in the same seismic way by the WikiLeaks download. Just compare the difference between Daniel Ellsberg and the young soldier (now imprisoned) who made the WikiLeaks documents available.

"Download" is part of it. Back in 1971 I can remember where I was sitting when I read the first installment of the PP in the NYT. (Just as many of my generation can remember where they were when they first heard that JFK was shot.) Until 1971, though the so-called "New Journalism" was just starting (a magazine phenomenon), large circulation newspapers had not yet begun to be frisky. They were old school. But, the difference was, again, not what the world learned from the PP, but the fact that readers got to see the real documents, reams of them. And journalism from then on began to publish more primary sources, not just summaries. And journalists once again realized they had fallen down on the job, had not gotten the real story, though there was always an exception or two.

That, unfortunately, still pertains. Journalists keep learning in the Bush and Obama period that they aren't getting the story, the real story, out. This is not accidental. Establishment forces have tried to prevent the actual story from coming out for decades. And to dumb down news, as well as everything else. Some have even bought entire networks to fashion the news as they (or as Rupert Murdoch) see fit.

And it's true in the newspaper world, too, which has become chain-oriented and endangered.Everything has become trivialized, speeded-up, made silly. USA Today used to be one of the worst, now it is among the best!Take the overnight sensation of the Shirley Sherrod story. A right wing blogger puts out a misleading clip (that's TV, not journalism) and the White House reacts, while journalism stops. The news cycle is now less than 24 hours.

Some – including me – have dated the death of journalism to the OJ trial. That marked the takeover of TV over print and all journalism stopped. Journalism via TV became a sport of viewing, not uncovering. We're still in that world. The fact that the White House plays along is only testament to how pervasive that sort of coverage is. We are at best treated to breast-beating after the fact, with many articles and TV minutes devoted to the life and times of Shirley Sherrod. Good for her. But how about something before the fact, rather than after the fact?

So, the WikiLeaks papers, or downloads, now will be studied, mined for whatever sensational tidbits are available. But they won't alter journalism; they are the current journalism. The horror is that WikiLeaks' good deed might not go unpunished. The last show of Supreme Court courage was the Pentagon Papers case, when it ruled in favor of a free press. If the Roberts Court was sitting then, free press would have lost. So, don't think things will necessarily get better. Be afraid, be very afraid.


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