Tonight PBS airs the Academy Award-nominated documentary on Daniel Ellsberg, The Most Dangerous Man in America, obviously focusing on his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers. I still vividly recall watching Dan on Channel 13 in New York blowing the whistle on Vietnam months before he became famous for leaking the Papers and wondering, who is that guy?
About a dozen years later, I finally met Dan. I was editor of Nuclear Times and he had become an antinuclear activist—he even got arrested several times at bomb sites. I actually managed the very rare feat of getting him to complete a magazine article and we have remained friends since, with Dan contributing important insights for the book I would write with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America, and much else. Once, attending a Lifton gathering on Cape Cod, I saw him strip to his shorts on a beach and dive into the frigid October waters without fear—it seemed to be some kind of metaphor.
So when, in Janaury 2003, it became clear that George Bush was hell-bent on invading Iraq, I naturally interviewed Dan for a special issue of Editor & Publisher (where I now served as editor), one of the few mainstream media outlets to early and often raise profound questions about the impending war. The Q&A would prove remarkably prescient about the media and Iraq, and the hazards of the war, nothing new for Dan. "This government, like in Vietnam, is lying us into a war," he charged. "Like Vietnam, it’s a reckless, unnecessary war, where the risks greatly outweigh any possible benefits."
What do you think of press coverage of the run-up to the war?
People used to ask me, at the time of the Pentagon Papers, how the press was covering Vietnam, and I would respond that I could put it two ways: they were doing badly, but better than any other institution in society—or they were doing better than any other institution in society, but badly.
Back then, the press only looked good compared to the administration’s account of itself, which was awful from beginning to end, and, compared to Congress, which only once held a real hearing on the war. Dissenters within the administration behaved badly, too. They understood the war was heading for disaster, and, without exception, including me, did not break ranks.
With Vietnam, the press accepted the government’s view until very late in the game, [to a] large extent until the Pentagon Papers came out. The public felt, "Why are we learning this stuff only now?" Many of those documents were with officials, and they knew the story. The public wondered, "Why is the story of actual government decision-making still a secret?"
I’m not sure if the press learned from Vietnam how to do better. In any case, the press as a whole is not doing it better now.
What exactly do they need to do better?
They are not doing the job that should be done on informing themselves, Congress, and the public on the decision-making process, the dissenting positions within the government, and the real considerations in the decision. Without that, Congress and the public cannot bring pressure to bear, before the bombs drop. Still, they are getting more leaks. Many in the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department see this may be a reckless war and that many may die needlessly. We do know much more than we did at a comparable time with Vietnam. And, as in past, the foreign press is reporting much more adequately than the US press—and the US press, as before, is largely ignoring that.