Fake News and The Pentagon Papers

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Fake News and The Pentagon Papers

Against the back­drop of sex­ual scan­dals and a mael­strom of mis­takes in the media, direc­tor Steven Spiel­berg tries to bring a feel-​good movie about journalism.

But The Post, which opens later this month, only adds to the milieu of fake news, pre­sent­ing a sto­ry­line that plays fast and loose with the facts.

The Spiel­berg cre­ation focuses on The Wash­ing­ton Post and its bid to pub­lish The Pen­ta­gon Papers, offi­cially titled United States – Viet­nam Rela­tions, 19451967: A Study Pre­pared by the Depart­ment of Defense. Daniel Ells­berg, who worked on the study, leaked 43 vol­umes of the mate­r­ial to Neil Shee­han, who cov­ered Viet­nam for DaTimes.

DaTimes pub­lished the first sto­ries and got hit with a law­suit to stop pub­li­ca­tion by the Nixon Admin­is­tra­tion. But Spiel­berg doesn’t focus on DaTimes but DaPost.

DaPost got a copy of The Pen­ta­gon Papers a week later, along with more than a dozen other news orga­ni­za­tions, and got hit with a lawsuit.

As The Poyn­ter Insti­tute notes in a review, “the Spiel­berg ver­sion is not close to being true as far as who deserves the real credit.”

Shee­han is one of those heroes — as is James Goodale, Da Times’ lawyer who argued that the press had a First Amend­ment right to pub­lish infor­ma­tion sig­nif­i­cant to the people’s under­stand­ing of their government’s pol­icy. It’s hardly sur­pris­ingly that peo­ple at DaTimes aren’t happy about the movie that vir­tu­ally excludes the news organization.

But it is Hol­ly­wood, so Spiel­berg report­edly dropped other projects after Don­ald Trump was elected. The movie appar­ently is intended to demon­strate that Richard Nixon, the press hater, has become rein­car­nated as Trump.

But that is fake news, too. Nixon didn’t want to chal­lenge pub­li­ca­tion of The Pen­ta­gon Papers because they basi­cally showed how John Kennedy and Lyn­don John­son had mucked up in Viet­nam. But Henry Kissinger con­vinced Nixon to try to stop pub­li­ca­tion because fail­ure to do so would con­vince other whistle­blow­ers to leak secret documents.

One of the real sto­ries, which isn’t addressed in the film, is how Ells­berg didn’t cut and run — unlike Edward Snow­den and Julian Assange.

Ells­berg faced trial under The Espi­onage Act of 1917 for leak­ing the doc­u­ments. The charges were dis­missed after the infa­mous plumbers of the Nixon White House stole some of his med­ical records in an idi­otic effort to bol­ster the government’s case.

Ulti­mately, the U.S. Supreme Court dis­missed the case against DaTimes and DaPost, allow­ing them and oth­ers to print The Pen­ta­gon Papers.

The Post is yet another film about his­tory that gets the facts wrong. That hap­pened in All the President’s Men, which placed too much impor­tance on DaPost’s work and too lit­tle on the judi­ciary and Con­gress. See my colleague’s assess­ment at http://​www​.bbc​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​m​a​g​a​z​i​n​e​-​18215048

Unfor­tu­nately, many peo­ple only remem­ber what they see at the movies, con­tin­u­ing the igno­rance about what hap­pens in reality.

Against the backdrop of sexual scandals and a maelstrom of mistakes in the media, director Steven Spielberg tries to bring a feel-good movie about journalism.

But The Post, which opens later this month, only adds to the milieu of fake news, presenting a storyline that plays fast and loose with the facts.

The Spielberg creation focuses on The Washington Post and its bid to publish The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense. Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on the study, leaked 43 volumes of the material to Neil Sheehan, who covered Vietnam for DaTimes.

DaTimes published the first stories and got hit with a lawsuit to stop publication by the Nixon Administration. But Spielberg doesn’t focus on DaTimes but DaPost.

DaPost got a copy of The Pentagon Papers a week later, along with more than a dozen other news organizations, and got hit with a lawsuit.

As The Poynter Institute notes in a review, “the Spielberg version is not close to being true as far as who deserves the real credit.”

Sheehan is one of those heroes—as is James Goodale, Da Times’ lawyer who argued that the press had a First Amendment right to publish information significant to the people’s understanding of their government’s policy. It’s hardly surprisingly that people at DaTimes aren’t happy about the movie that virtually excludes the news organization.

But it is Hollywood, so Spielberg reportedly dropped other projects after Donald Trump was elected. The movie apparently is intended to demonstrate that Richard Nixon, the press hater, has become reincarnated as Trump.

But that is fake news, too. Nixon didn’t want to challenge publication of The Pentagon Papers because they basically showed how John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had mucked up in Vietnam. But Henry Kissinger convinced Nixon to try to stop publication because failure to do so would convince other whistleblowers to leak secret documents.

One of the real stories, which isn’t addressed in the film, is how Ellsberg didn’t cut and run—unlike Edward Snowden and Julian Assange.

Ellsberg faced trial under The Espionage Act of 1917 for leaking the documents. The charges were dismissed after the infamous plumbers of the Nixon White House stole some of his medical records in an idiotic effort to bolster the government’s case.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case against DaTimes and DaPost, allowing them and others to print The Pentagon Papers.

The Post is yet another film about history that gets the facts wrong. That happened in All the President’s Men, which placed too much importance on DaPost’s work and too little on the judiciary and Congress. See my colleague’s assessment at  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18215048

Unfortunately, many people only remember what they see at the movies, continuing the ignorance about what happens in reality.