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The Media The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?

The Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was in reality only a small island of dissenting journalism in a sea of stenography to established power, writes IAN SINCLAIR

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S new film about the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers — a secret history of the Vietnam War that proved successive US presidents had lied to the US public — has received huge amounts of critical acclaim.

The Post “is a pointed celebration of liberal decency” and “a stirring example of principle,” wrote Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s film critic, in his four star review.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s senior liberal hawk, made a case last month for the film to be awarded best picture at the Oscars, arguing it’s a newspaper story “full of … integrity.” 

The Post is, undoubtedly, an impressive film that tells a riveting and important story.

Under intense pressure from the Richard Nixon administration, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) choose to disregard the government’s warning about endangering “national security” and publish the leaked documents.

As one of the newspaper’s employees tells the newsroom, relaying the Supreme Court’s decision that supported publication, in one particularly Spielbergian scene, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” 

Frustratingly, a number of inconvenient facts have been largely forgotten in this self-serving celebration of the US press as crusading, obstinate and deeply critical of government.

As the film highlights, Washington Post assistant managing editor for national news Ben Bagdikian played a key role in getting hold of the Pentagon Papers and their eventual publication.

However, what I haven’t seen mentioned in any reviews or wider coverage is that Bagdikian went on to write one of the most important critiques of the mainstream media in the US. 

First published in 1983, The Media Monopoly explained how the increasingly concentrated corporate ownership, combined with the impact of mass advertising, created news media that “suffer from built-in biases that protect corporate power.”

Political discourse “is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics,” trade unions are treated poorly, while media owners, their interests, families and friends are usually treated as “sacred cows” in newsrooms — off limits to critical reporting.

Though he made his name at the Washington Post, Bagdikian doesn’t spare the newspaper in the book, seeing it as a central part of the US mass media that collectively weakens the public’s ability to understand the economic and political forces that shape the world.

“Criticising capitalism has never been a popular subject in the general news,” Bagdikian argued in 1997, echoing The Media Monopoly’s main argument.

A recording from a recent internal New York Times meeting shows he was right on the money, with the paper’s editorial page editor telling staff: “We are pro-capitalism.”

Why was the most influential paper on the planet so supportive of capitalism? “Because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty programme and engine of progress that we’ve seen.”

Returning to Spielberg’s The Post, the film conveniently skates over the Washington Post’s early and strong backing of the US aggression in Vietnam and wealthy socialite Graham’s offer of support to Nixon after he was elected in 1968.

Despite this, as Norman Solomon noted in the Huffington Post last year, Graham wrote in her memoirs, “I don’t believe that who I was or wasn’t friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our publications.”

Robert Parry, a Washington correspondent for the Graham-owned Newsweek magazine in the 1980s, has a different take.

Parry reported “self-censorship because of the coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures,” providing an example from 1987.

“I was told that my story about the CIA funnelling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua’s Catholic church had been watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs Graham and [former US Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.”

In 1988 Graham revealed her democratic credentials in a speech to the CIA. “We live in a dirty and dangerous world,” she said. “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t.

“I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

It seems the legendary Bradlee, who played a key role in reporting the Watergate revelations that led to Nixon resigning in 1974, also stumbled badly in the 1980s.

Speaking to author Mark Hertsgaard for the 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, Bradlee explained that the Washington Post “and probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride, but they didn’t use the same standards on him that they had used on [President Jimmy] Carter and on Nixon.” 

“We did ease off,” he added.

After 9/11, the US media become even more supportive of the US government. Famously, the highly respected veteran US news man Dan Rather appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman soon after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, solemnly explaining: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. And, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where and he will make the call.”

Like the majority of the US press, the Washington Post supported the march to war in Iraq in 2003.

From August 2002 to the launch of the war there were more than 140 front page stories that focused on the Bush administration’s rhetoric against Iraq, while stories questioning the government’s case for war were generally buried inside the paper or sometimes spiked.

Having struggled to get stories past senior editors, veteran reporter Thomas Ricks noted: “There was an attitude among editors — Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

The coverage was “strikingly one-sided at times,” according to staff writer Howard Kurtz. These stats and quotes are taken from a 2004 front page investigation the Washington Post conducted into its woeful pre-war reporting. Bradlee, having stepped down as executive editor in 1991, said he was “embarrassed” by this public apology.

Shockingly, the Washington Post argued in 2016 that US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, whom the paper had used as a source for stories on the US government’s vast electronic surveillance programmes, should stand trial on espionage charges.

Its reasoning was that his leaks likely endangered “national security” — the same justification given by editors at the New York Times for spiking journalist James Risen’s reports on the US government’s vast domestic surveillance programme in 2004. For more on this, read Risen’s extraordinary expose published by The Intercept earlier this month.

It turns out the government’s crying wolf about “national security” and interfering in the so-called free press isn’t just something that happened when journalists smoked in newsrooms and called sources from payphones. 

What all this shows is the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was, in reality, small islands of crusading, dissenting journalism in a sea of stenography to established power. 

Worryingly,  the sole owner of the Washington Post today is Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and main stakeholder. Beyond the obvious concerns about corporate influence, the Amazon link is troubling because the internet giant signed a $600m contract with the CIA in 2014 to provide it with a computing “cloud.”

As the US academic Robert McChesney once wrote, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.” 

No doubt Bagdikian, who died in 2016, would strongly agree.

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