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The story behind the Pentagon Papers, told by the journalists who lived it

In 1971, newspaper editors at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe were handed thousands of pages of highly classified government documents containing explosive revelations about government officials’ handling of the Vietnam War. These became known as the Pentagon Papers, and those editors faced a weighty choice, one that ultimately shaped the landscape for freedom of the press: whether or not to publish the documents. They chose to publish.

Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post and a city editor at the paper at the time of the Pentagon Papers, discussed that decision on Tuesday at an event hosted by Northeastern’s School of Journalism. Downie wasn’t in a position to make the call of whether to publish or not in 1971, but when asked what he would’ve done, he didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve had to make many such decisions myself throughout the years, and there’s no doubt I would have published that story,” he said.

Downie was joined at the event by Northeastern law professor Woodrow Hartzog and former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin, who also was a city editor at the time of the Pentagon Papers. He’d also just returned from a reporting trip in Vietnam, so he was in the room when some of the Globe’s top brass weighed whether they should continue to publish the documents after the Times and the Post had been enjoined by the U.S. government.

“It’s hard to understand the importance of that (Supreme Court) opinion. It created a bedrock for press protection in the U.S.”

Woodrow Hartzog Northeastern law professor

“That debate only took about five or 10 minutes,” Storin recalled. “The Times and the Post had already published the papers; there’s no way we weren’t going to.”

School of Journalism chair Jonathan Kaufman moderated the event, titled “Hollywood, The Press, and The President.”

Prompted by Kaufman, Downie and Storin took the audience through the events that resulted in publishing the Pentagon Papers and analyzed how well those events were portrayed in the upcoming Steven Spielberg film, The Post. In fact, having lived through it firsthand, Downie served as a technical advisor on set.

The movie focuses primarily on the relationship between Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, and Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks. Graham was the first female publisher of The Washington Post, and was soon tasked with the enormous decision of whether or not to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers after The New York Times had been ordered to stop by the White House.

Bradlee, then-executive editor at the Post, encouraged her to publish.

This is not the first Hollywood treatment of the Bradlee family. Bradlee’s son, Ben Bradlee Jr., was editor at The Boston Globe during the Spotlight investigation into sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, an investigation upon which the Oscar-winning film Spotlight is based. Indeed, Josh Singer, who wrote the script for Spotlight, also helped write the script for The Post. Before The Post went into production, Singer asked Walter Robinson, former Spotlight editor and current Northeastern professor of the practice, to look over the script, Downie said. Robinson referred Singer to Downie.

“There’s no doubt I would have published that story,” said Leonard Downie, former executive editor of The Washington Post. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Downie said a portion of the movie takes place in Graham’s home, as she often called meetings there to review and discuss the Pentagon Papers. “When I walked out of set, I almost had tears in my eyes,” he said. “It was exactly her house. It was incredible.”

And while Downie often had direct access to many of the film’s character actors, occasionally spoke to Spielberg himself, and had “a back-and-forth” with Hanks, he said he dared not speak with Streep while she was on set. “She was Katharine Graham the entire shooting of the movie,” he said. “Spielberg himself referred to her all the time as ‘Katharine.’ I didn’t dare interrupt that.”

What made the publishing of the Pentagon Papers so groundbreaking, and perhaps so prime for the silver screen, is the ripple effects it had on U.S. journalism, writ large.

After The New York Times started publishing the documents and its accompanying stories, President Richard Nixon claimed executive authority to force the newspaper to suspend publication of the classified documents. A district court judge issued a restraining order on the news organization, at the request of the Nixon administration.

The issue quickly rose to the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the press under the First Amendment.

“It’s hard to understand the importance of that opinion,” Hartzog said Tuesday. “It created a bedrock for press protection in the U.S.”

That protection, and the autonomy of the free press across the U.S., is what sustains a robust democracy, according to Elizabeth Hudson, dean of the College of Arts, Media and Design.

“Currently, we’re seeing a new focus on maintaining a free and independent press to preserve the future of democracy,” she said in introductory remarks. “This is not the first nor will it be the last time that our democracy will undergo this sort of challenge.”