What newspapers do, why they exist and why you should care

Posted 1/31/18

Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Jan. 28 edition of the Greenwood Index-Journal.

Sunshine Week, a time set aside by the media (newspapers, more so) nationally to highlight the importance of and need for transparency in government, …

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What newspapers do, why they exist and why you should care


Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Jan. 28 edition of the Greenwood Index-Journal.

Sunshine Week, a time set aside by the media (newspapers, more so) nationally to highlight the importance of and need for transparency in government, doesn't roll around until mid-March.

Really, every day of every week should be Sunshine Day, a point driven home well by the movie "The Post." Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, "The Post" captures the true story of the release of the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents that clearly reflect a different tale about America's involvement in the Vietnam War than a host of presidential administrations revealed - Democrat and Republican.

Streep plays publisher Katharine Graham alongside Hanks' role as editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post.

Right now, a bunch of readers stopped reading and moved on. Who cares, right? It's a movie about that liberal rag, after all. The only thing worse would be a mention of The New York Times, right?

Spoiler alert! The Times is part of the movie too.

You see, the Times first published a story on the Pentagon Papers that were secretly given to them by Daniel Ellsberg, a State Department military analyst who accompanied troops to Vietnam and documented the war's progress for Secretary of State Robert McNamara, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

What Ellsberg observed and reported was not at all the same message he heard coming out of McNamara's reports to the media, reports that couched the war as progressing, not failing miserably. Years later, Ellsberg lands a job with RAND Corp., a civilian military contractor. At odds with the truth he and McNamara knew juxtaposed with the public story even McNamara himself promoted, Ellsberg copies hundreds of pages of classified documents dating as far back as the Truman administration and leaks them to a New York Times reporter.

But then came this little thing called an injunction, orchestrated by President Richard Nixon, which prevented the Times from further publishing stories about the secret documents. Don't like what the media writes or says, just get it shut down, right? Sound familiar, by the way?

Fast forward. While the Times is in a holding pattern, Ellsberg gives copies of the same documents to Bradlee's assistant editor, whom he knew years ago.

Graham, new at the helm of the Post following her husband's suicide and poised to go public with the family owned newspaper, finds herself at a crossroads. She can publish her staff's work and pick up where the Times left off or she can, to use a newspaper term, spike the story, possibly saving it from financial ruin in the event investors pulled out.

It's hard to believe, but at that time in the early 1970s, the Post was considered a local newspaper. Of course, publishing the Pentagon Papers stories catapulted the newspaper into the national spotlight. The Post, along with the Times, still had one more fight, which was taken up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices sided, 6-3, with the papers' First Amendment right to publish.

Today, the outcry is over so-called fake news. But consider that fake news, until the Pentagon Papers found their way out of a dark locked file cabinet and onto the pages of the Times and the Post, was in what presidential administrations spanning from Truman to Nixon were telling the American public.

That is certainly a large-scale example and hardly the first such example that can be cited. Indeed, not everything is a cover-up, a Watergate. But that is why people should celebrate having a free press. And yes, generally speaking it is newspapers - the Fourth Estate - that are in the watchdog role. They do the digging and research to unearth the truth.

Sadly, it seems, far too many people would rather simply believe what they are told by their government, from the local level all the way to our capitol. They enjoy jumping on the bandwagon to rail against a liberal media, just because the president they elected applies the label. God forbid that unbridled and legitimate investigation by a newspaper publish the real story.

It wasn't OK that Truman lied. That Ike lied. That JFK lied. That Johnson lied. That Nixon lied. And it wasn't a liberal editor working for a liberal publisher of a liberal newspaper. No, it was a group of people driven by a thirst for truth and a desire to share that truth with the American public, no matter the outcome.

Really, that is what most of us in the newspaper business are all about. It could be telling readers who got arrested, if public business was conducted behind closed doors, how much taxpayer-funded administrators are being paid, where missing public funds went. And yes, it could be exposing a full-scale coverup - not necessarily on par with the Pentagon Papers or even Watergate, but important to the public nonetheless.

If you get a chance, go see "The Post." It's not action-packed fictional entertainment. It's not mindless humor to be enjoyed over buttered popcorn and a Coke. But it should deepen your appreciation for a free press and the First Amendment. Unless, that is, you are content to have the press silenced because the truth simply isn't convenient.

We in this business don't always get it right, and we know that. Writing the first chapter in history can be a bit messy, but ultimately historic truth is what we aspire to provide.

Whiting is executive editor of the Index-Journal. Contact him at (864) 943-2522, email rwhiting@indexjournal.com, or follow him on Twitter at IJEDITOR.