God, it’s been said, makes a lousy playwright. As far as an upcoming film that spotlights the Pentagon Papers is concerned, though, The New York Times is seething not at the Almighty but at the producers.
In March it was announced that Steven Spielberg would direct The Post, which offers as its backdrop the dramatic story of how the press exposed the federal government’s infamous secret history of the Vietnam War. Liz Hannah, who studied at the American Film Institute, sold her spec script to former Sony co-chair Amy Pascal’s production company last fall. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Variety reported, are “attached to star” as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee.
But it was The New York Times—not the Washington Post—that broke the Pentagon Papers story. It is the Times whose name is on the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case that affirmed the right to publish the classified documents. And it was the Times that won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service for its labors.
Nonetheless, as its title implies, the Spielberg project emphasizes the ancillary role of the Post. Not unexpectedly, Times people from back in the day are incensed.
“I found it incredible,” says James Greenfield, 92, who coordinated the Pentagon Papers project as the Times’ foreign editor, recalling his reaction upon hearing about The Post. “I was furious. It’s all wrong. I find it quite inconceivable. This movie is a rip-off.”
James Goodale, 83, the Times’ general counsel at the time of the Papers, also uses the term “rip-off,” specifically in regard to the rival newspaper’s coverage. “I’ve been so pissed off,” he says. “It really gets you pissed when you think about it.”
“I do not care to speak of it,” wrote Max Frankel, 87, the Times Washington bureau chief when the Papers were published, and eventually executive editor, in an email to CJR. He did, however, call The Post a “stupid project.”
The dust-up appears to be a case of history versus Hollywood, of the long-running competition between the Times and the Post, and of star quality in general.
ANY JOURNALISM 101 graduate knows how the Times came by the Pentagon Papers, a classified 47-volume study of this country’s involvement in Vietnam, commissioned in 1967 by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Among the many contributors to the study was Daniel Ellsberg, a researcher at MIT’s Center for International Studies and a veteran of the Rand Corp. and the State and Defense departments. Increasingly disillusioned with the war, he leaked copies of 43 of the volumes to the Times correspondent Neil Sheehan, who had covered Vietnam for both UPI and the paper.
In a massive, coordinated effort, the Times began running a multi-part analysis of the Papers, supplemented by the original documents, on June 13, 1971. Within two days, the Nixon administration, citing national security and invoking the Espionage Act of 1917, tried to enjoin further publication. Defying the initial request, the Times did abide by a lower court’s restraining order.
It was at this point that The Washington Post got into the act. A little less than two weeks before the Papers were first printed, Post executive editor Ben Bradlee began sensing that something was brewing. In his memoir A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, he remembered hearing that the Times “was working on a ‘blockbuster,’ an exclusive that would blow us out of the water.”
When the Times published the first installment, Bradlee wrote, “[W]e found ourselves in the humiliating position of having to rewrite the competition. Every other paragraph of the Post story had to include some form of the words ‘according to the New York Times,’ blood—visible only to us—on every word.” Bradlee, wrote Post publisher Katharine Graham in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 autobiography Personal History, was “anguished” and “mortified” at being scooped.
The box office potential of three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep as Graham and two-time winner Tom Hanks as Bradlee is undeniable.
But Bradlee and company quickly caught up. When the judiciary blocked the Times from further publication, Ellsberg conveyed copies of the documents to Ben Bagdikian, assistant managing editor for national affairs of the Post. The paper promptly began churning out its own series.
Ultimately, the Post joined the Times in its fight for the right to publish. In its 6-3 decision in New York Times Co. v. United States, issued on June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court allowed publication to proceed, determining that the White House had not proved its case for prior restraint.
Any shared glory with the Post still rankles at the Times. “We find it annoying and silly that we are being relegated to being a minor player in what is one of the biggest moments in our journalistic history,” said a high-level Times source who requested anonymity.
Similarly, James Greenfield recalls his indignation upon hearing Graham speak at the 1996 annual dinner of the Media Law Resource Center, when both she and Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger received the organization’s William J. Brennan Defense of Freedom Award to mark the 25th anniversary of the Papers’ publication. Graham’s speech, he says, “did not differentiate her role from ours. She equated the Post’s effort with our effort. It was very strange and frankly irritating.” At the dinner, Greenfield tried to get Sulzberger to confront her, but Sulzberger demurred.
“The editors of the Times were fiercely proud of their exclusive and resented losing their competitive position,” wrote former Goucher College president Sanford J. Ungar, a Post writer at the time of the affair, in The Papers and The Papers. He quoted managing editor A.M. Rosenthal as saying, ”I was jumping up and down in here like a madman.”
However, Ungar continued, “once he overcame his initial reaction,” Rosenthal became convinced that there was strength in numbers: “I was glad they did it. I felt this would help us.” By the same token, Graham knew this was the Times’ story. The day after the first story appeared, she wrote, over “a pre-dinner glass of wine, I congratulated Abe on the publication of the Papers.”
SO IF THE TIMES’ role in the story was primary, why would anyone make a movie focusing on the also-ran Post?
A Random House spokesperson for Neil Sheehan said he “is not giving interviews at this time.” Numerous attempts to reach Spielberg and Pascal for comment through their representatives over the course of several weeks were unsuccessful. An official of Echo Lake Entertainment, the Beverly Hills-based film and television production, finance, and management company that represents Hannah, wrote in an email, “I’m not sure she is going to be doing any press right now.”
But in an online interview, Hannah said that her script is primarily a character study of Katharine Graham.
The Post, Hannah told Asmara Bhattacharya of the website Final Draft—which describes itself as a “Cast & Crew Entertainment Company”—“is not a whistleblower film. It is not about, necessarily, the Pentagon Papers. It’s about this woman [Graham] and how this event ended up being what changed her.”
The Washington Post’s initial coverage of the film does not mention the Times. Nor does the Final Draft piece. The latter does make clear Hannah’s devotion to her focal point: “’She was a woman who had a voice,’ marvels Hannah, her voice lighting up whenever she speaks of Graham. ‘She stepped up and became the kind of person she would be for the rest of her life.’”
I was furious. It’s all wrong. I find it quite inconceivable. This movie is a rip-off.”
Moreover, the box office potential of three-time Oscar winner Streep as Graham and two-time winner Hanks as Bradlee—once described by The Wall Street Journal as resembling an “international jewel thief”—is undeniable.
“You get the two of them,” acknowledges Greenfield, “and you have a sure-fire hit.” Bradlee’s widow, the noted Post reporter Sally Quinn, calls the co-stars a “dream team.”
“It seems that as a vehicle for the two actors,” says former Times assistant managing editor Allan Siegal, one of 22 Times personnel named as defendants in the original government complaint, “poetic license is being taken.”
As it is, the co-stars have lately evinced interest in the Fourth Estate. Earlier this year, Hanks sent the White House press corps an espresso machine; it was his third such gesture since 2004. “Keep up the good fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way,” he wrote in an accompanying note. “Especially for the Truth part.”
And in January, Streep offered an unexpected and much publicized defense of the First Amendment at the Golden Globe ceremonies.
Meryl Street talked about journalism after accepting her lifetime achievement award.
“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage,” she said upon receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. She specifically supported the Committee to Protect Journalists, on whose board Goodale served for a quarter-century, and which he chaired for five years.
The actress’s remarks caught Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s advocacy director, off guard. “We were pleasantly surprised to hear such a high-profile shout-out from such a high-profile celebrity,” she says.
A DRAMATIZED VERSION of the Post’s role in the Papers affair, featuring boldface names, is hardly virgin territory. More than 25 years ago, the Emmy Award-winning journalist, professor, and producer Geoffrey Cowan co-wrote the two-act drama Top Secret. Initially broadcast in 1991 on National Public Radio, with Marsha Mason as Graham and Ed Asner as Bradlee, it later toured 25 cities, appearing Off-Broadway and in China. The Times said the former production had “rather flat staging” but that Larry Pine was “a delectably smarmy Nixon.”
Just as the Spielberg movie is currently irking the Times, so did Top Secret. Susan Loewenberg, the producing director of LA Theatre Works—which has shepherded the play through all of its incarnations—remembers “naively” asking Abe Rosenthal to participate in a discussion following the initial NPR version.
“When I called Abe to be on the panel,” says Loewenberg, “he asked, ‘What’s it about?’ And I said it was about The Washington Post. He said, ‘What? Why are you writing about The Washington Post and not us? This is bullshit!’ And he hangs up on me.”
Cowan acknowledges the centrality of the Times in the Pentagon Papers. But he felt that for his purposes, a Post angle was a better fit. “It’s a woman’s story,” he says. “I thought that for a movie, a Times story would make a great story. But it wouldn’t work on stage.”
Cowan was inspired in part by his personal relationship with Graham, having known her from Martha’s Vineyard. “You could describe Kay as being insecure,” he says. “But that’s what makes her story so interesting—that she had the courage to do this and was struggling through this.”
Goodale says he can appreciate a human-interest focus on Graham. He saw Top Secret during its 2010 off-Broadway run and joined then-Columbia Journalism Review chairman Victor Navasky in a post-show forum. “What the play could do, and did do, is show a wobbly-kneed Kay Graham coming into her moment,” Goodale says.
But he argues that the decision of “Punch” Sulzberger to proceed with the Papers mattered far more.
“He was putting all the crown jewels on the table, and he could have gone to jail,” Goodale says. Indeed, Sulzberger said long after the Supreme Court ruling, “The more I listened, the more certain I became that the entire operation smelled of 20 years to life.”
“It was a very tough decision for him,” says Goodale. “Compared to his decision, her decision doesn’t impress me all that much.”
Daniel Ellsberg disagrees. “I give them both [Sulzberger and Graham] great credit,” he says. “This, as far as I can tell, is not a story about the Pentagon Papers. It’s a story about a turning point in the life of Kay Graham. I’m glad to see it coming out. This movie might encourage somebody to be a whistleblower.” Such a possibility in an era of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, he says, is to be welcomed.
Ellsberg also points out that the Post wasn’t alone in joining the Times in its ordeal. In his book, Ungar notes that the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were also hauled into court. In the end, more than a dozen other newspapers published articles based on the Pentagon archive.
“I can understand that the Times feels, ‘Hey, the Pentagon Papers is our story,’” says Ellsberg. “But 19 papers altogether were involved in this.”
Cowan and Loewenberg say that the powers behind The Post have not contacted them regarding their effort. Cowan does not suspect anything untoward. But he adds, “You can’t help wondering, even if all this stuff is in the public domain. I’d be interested in what their take is.”
AMONG OTHER ISSUES, what rankles with Times survivors is that the Sheehan team took approximately three months to sift through, comprehend, and verify the Papers themselves. At one point, Harrison Salisbury wrote in Without Fear or Favor, Rosenthal asked Sheehan, “How can you be sure that this isn’t something made up by 50 radical kids in some cellar, putting the whole thing together?”
By contrast, the Post effectively piggybacked on the Times’ labors. “[Bradlee] did not have to worry whether the Papers were fake or not,” wrote Goodale in his 2013 memoir Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles. Goodale eventually asked Bradlee how he had the time to check on the veracity of the Papers. Bradlee answered, “The New York Times had those documents for three months . . . I should have had more than 12 hours, but I didn’t. So you have to do what you have to do.”
“I certainly look forward to seeing the movie, and Americans should continue to honor the enduring journalistic work of Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham,” says Floyd Abrams, the noted constitutional attorney and a key member of the Times’ legal team. “What I am sure they would not say (and I hope the movie does not suggest) is that it was months of investigative work by The Washington Post as opposed to The New York Times that led to the significant public revelations contained in the Pentagon Papers.”
Kay Graham died in 2001.
James Greenfield is more pessimistic: “I’ll tell you my great worry—that this will totally distort a moment in American journalism.” Greenfield’s wife has told him to reconcile himself to The Post. He is finding that to be difficult.
“I can’t get over it. For generations, people will see the movie and say, ‘Oh, yes, The Washington Post—they got the Pentagon Papers. It’s a great concern to me. In the minds of young viewers, this will be their version of history.”
Sally Quinn laughs when told that the Times is not exactly enthused about The Post. “I can certainly understand that,” she says. “A lot of them [Times personnel] are my close friends and have said that Abe would be rolling over in his grave.”
Quinn first heard of the movie through Amy Pascal, the wife of former Times Hollywood correspondent Bernard Weinraub, who wrote a trenchant reflection on his 14-year Tinseltown beat upon leaving the paper in 2005. Quinn, a neighbor of Steven Spielberg in East Hampton, subsequently met him backstage at Saturday Night Live; there, he told her of the involvement of Hanks and Streep.
Quinn has seen Hannah’s script and says that while it is not a final draft, she agrees that it is more concerned with Katharine Graham than with the Pentagon Papers per se.
“I think it’s about her coming of age. It’s about this woman who was a homemaker who was suddenly thrust into the role of publisher, and nothing could have been more dramatic. I think the idea is terrific and the whole concept of Kay and Ben, and how they worked together, is great and really important.”
At the very least, The Post has occasioned some wry inside humor. “I am looking,” quips Neil Lewis, a Times correspondent for 24 years, “for help in writing a screenplay about how the Times broke the Watergate story.”