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How the US Press Lost its Way

You can track the arc of modern American journalism from its apex at the Pentagon Papers and Watergate curving downward to Iran-Contra before the nadir of Bush’s war in Iraq.

Editor’s Note: From May 10 to May 12, journalist Robert Parry participated in a conference entitled, “From the Pentagon Papers to WikiLeaks: A Transatlantic Conversation on the Public’s Right to Know,” sponsored by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies in Heidelberg, Germany.

The conference consisted of media figures, legal scholars and freedom-of-information advocates – and included Neil Sheehan, the New York Times correspondent who got the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, and Barry Sussman, the Washington Post editor who oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal.

Parry spoke on the last day and offered the following observations:

Much of this conference has focused on the glory days of American journalism in the 1970s. And rightly so. My talk, however, will deal with the more depressing question of why things then went so terribly wrong.

First, let me say it’s been an honor to be at this conference, especially with Neil Sheehan and Barry Sussman, who played such important roles exposing serious crimes of state in the early to mid-1970s. That was a time when U.S. journalism perhaps was at its best, far from perfect, but doing what the Founders had in mind when they afforded special protections to the American press.

In the 1970s, besides the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, there were other important press disclosures, like the My Lai massacre story and the CIA abuses — from Iran to Guatemala, from Cuba to Chile. For people around the world, American journalism was the gold standard.

Granted, that was never the full picture. There were shortcomings even in the 1970s. You also could argue that the U.S. news media’s performance then was exceptional mostly in contrast to its failures during the Cold War, when reporters tended to be stenographers to power, going along to get along, including early in the Vietnam War.

Even the much-admired Walter Cronkite flacked for the early U.S. bombing raids over Vietnam. But the press of the Seventies seemed to have learned lessons from its earlier gullibility. And, with Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, it could be said that America’s checks and balances were alive and well. In newsrooms around Washington, there was reason to be proud.

More broadly, the United States had reason to be proud. The American constitutional Republic had shown its capacity for self-correction. Not only had brave individuals done their jobs as professionals – both in media and in government – but the nation’s institutions had worked.

The press, the Congress, the courts along with an informed public had demanded and gotten accountability and reform. Not only were Nixon and many of his henchmen gone but Congress enacted legal changes designed to prevent the excessive influence of political donors, to open up government secrets to public scrutiny, to protect whistleblowers.

Again, things weren’t perfect and the nation faced many challenges in the 1970s, but one could say that democracy had been strengthened. As painful as the process was, the system had worked.

However, the success of democracy, this victory of the rule of law, was fragile. The struggle between dishonest pols and honest reporters – between an engaged people and behind-the-scenes powerbrokers – was far from over. Indeed, a new battle was just beginning.

After Nixon’s resignation, his embittered allies didn’t simply run up the white flag. They got to work ensuring that they would never experience “another Watergate.” And it wasn’t just a struggle that pitted the press against the pols.

You could say that much of the U.S. Establishment had been unnerved by the surge of democracy that had arisen to challenge longstanding traditions and injustices — the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement. There also were cultural upheavals, with the hippies and the drug culture. It was an unsettling time for the rich white men who held most of the levers of power.

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