Boomer opinion: Attacks on the news media

The media is under attack; everyone knows that. But as contributor Larry Checco of Silver Spring, Maryland points out in this Boomer Opinion piece for BoomerCafé, it’s not the first time in the lives of baby boomers that we’ve seen this.

When Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham gave the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee the go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers, I got goose bumps.

Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham with the paper’s editor Ben Bradlee in 1971.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go see Steven Spielberg’s new movie, The Post.

My goose bumps weren’t the result of actors Meryl Streep’s and Tom Hanks’ fine acting ability, although both turned in Oscar-quality performances.

Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg.

No, those goose bumps rose because — in what now seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — there existed people like Graham, Bradlee, Daniel Ellsberg and others, including executives of The New York Times, who made difficult, professionally dangerous and potentially life-altering decisions, not for personal or political gain, but because they knew the decisions they were making were ethically and morally correct.

Although threatened and excoriated by a government swathed in secrecy and paranoia — the Nixon Administration — these people deeply believed that the citizens of the United States of America had a right to know that their government, over the course of 30 years and five presidents, had been lying to them.

Daniel Ellsberg

The cost of those lies translated into the deaths of two million Vietnamese, many of whom were innocent women and children, nearly 60,000 American GIs, and about $1 trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars (when adjusted for inflation).

Why the lies that prolonged the war?

No administration — from Harry Truman’s to Richard Nixon’s — wanted to go down in history as having “lost” Vietnam to communism. It was more about losing political face than winning a war.

According to the Pentagon Papers, 10-percent of the war was fought to help the people of Vietnam, 20% to contain Communist China, and a full 70% to save face.

Steven Spielberg directs filming “The Post.”

However, the principal characters in this courageous escapade to uphold the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and to publish the papers had more to lose than face.

Ellsberg, who photocopied — by hand — 7,000 pages of the Rand Report that became known as the Pentagon Papers, faced life imprisonment for treason. The leaders of The Washington Post — Graham and Bradlee — also risked jail time, their reputations, and in Graham’s case, The Washington Post itself. The movie does a great job dramatizing all of this.

Meryl Streep portrayed Katherine Graham in “The Post.”

The fact is, the First Amendment of our Constitution states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

That’s a lot of serious ground covered in a mere 45 words.

But if you are a strict constructionist of the constitution, which many in America are, the code is clear, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom…of the press.”

What the Constitution does not address, however, is how far our political leaders and others can go in trashing or discrediting that free press, or what we now call “the media”.

Who you trust is paramount to what you believe.

With the advent of “fake news” — promoted these days from the highest levels of our government, no less— we’ve entered into a very squirrelly state in our democracy.

Larry Checco

Consider this: if, in 1971, we believed that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was nothing more than the mainstream media perpetrating a conspiracy against the U.S. government — as many have come to believe the media is doing today — the Vietnam War may have gone on for several more years. As it is, the war didn’t end until April, 1975.

We have faced many crises since the inception of our democracy, but few as serious as the assault our free press is experiencing today. If all we have is a government dictating to us what its own “truth” is, history has proven we’re in deep do-do.

Kudos to today’s Grahams, Bradlees, and Ellsbergs who are still out there, acting as checks on our government, trying to keep it honest. If that check goes, so does our democracy.

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10 Comments

  1. Excellent piece, I totally agree with it. The free press is democracy’s major bulwark against autocracy, always has been. It’s terrifying to see to what lengths of lying this White House will go…The things said in this article need to be said, repeated and shared. Unless you want American democracy to die in 2018.

    1. Thanks, Claude. All Americans, regardless of how they feel about the current administration–good, bad or ugly–are entitled to and should demand a free, unencumbered press that acts in the interest of the common good and adheres to the core principles of journalism, which include honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, accountability and responsibility. Otherwise, as a functional democracy, we’re screwed!

  2. How apropos! We just saw “The Post” yesterday, and were glued to the screen every minute. We are living in a different era, but similar circumstances with our current administration criticizing the media including newspapers, television, books, and more. I’m sure Steven Spielberg’s timing was not coincidental in making and releasing this excellent movie. The media is and always will be our picture of what is happening in our cities, nation, and world around us. Let’s support these hard working reporters and news people and give them credit for what they are doing instead of demeaning them and calling them “fake news” and worse. They deserve much better and put their lives at risk at times to keep us informed and up to date on what is happening – good, bad or otherwise – around the world. Once the press disappears and we only hear what the government wants us to hear, that’s strictly dictatorship and extremely dangerous. So thank you, sir, for writing this very important article, and I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open to all that the “free press” continues to report.

    1. You’re correct, Sharyn. Spielberg and 20th Century Fox wasted no time in getting this movie released, for reasons that seem obvious. Some critics say the film is inaccurate because it doesn’t give enough credit to The New York Times and the role its journalists and executives played in the release of the Pentagon Papers. Nonetheless, this is an important film about the necessity for freedom of the press, especially in today’s toxic political “fake news” environment.

  3. Good writing, Larry. But I submit that, when I was not that much younger, I could count on network news on any of the big three networks to be researched and accurate, devoid of reporter’s personal opinions. I no longer have that certainty, whether watching CBS or Fox, both are slanted. I don’t believe I have anywhere to get news that’s not opinionated. Greg Dobbs said it himself: “The people who report the news have one job and one job only: to collect the facts and deliver them. They should stick to it.”
    Our press is not collecting the facts and delivering them. They are slanting them. Please review Greg’s article here:
    https://www.boomercafe.com/2015/12/13/veteran-newsman-wants-media-to-stick-to-the-facts/

  4. I find it difficult to disagree with you, Denver. Walter Cronkite must be rolling in his grave given all of today’s opinionated news reports and the countless talking heads that deliver them. As I say in my column above, who you trust is paramount to what you believe. I’m more likely to trust news accounts that specifically site their sources, research their stories thoroughly, have little or no axe to grind, and if and when their reporting is in doubt or proven wrong or misleading, apologize rather than double down. Trust is the glue that holds everything in our society together, whether it’s our trust in the media, our politicians, financial or religious institutions, in people we meet and relate to on a daily basis, you name it. And I say with great regret, we possess darn little of it these days. Not a good thing!

  5. It’s more important than ever that we be discerning, reading and watching as many news sources as we can. One publication you can trust to present unbiased reporting is The Christian Science Monitor. Check it our for yourself: For over 100 years, it’s fought back against what was called “yellow journalism” when it was founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy. Find it online and get it in print for award-winning outstanding journalism.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Janis. I’m not in the business of recommending news sources, but I wholeheartedly agree that we need to read, view and listen to as many sides of a story as we can and come to our own educated decisions.

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