Book Review: Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers

By James Goodale


Do you think news organizations have a duty to publish classified information if they determine that it is in the public interest to know that information? Well, on June 13, 1971, the New York Times published the first of the Pentagon Papers, a series of top-secret Defence Department documents, leaked to it by Daniel Ellsberg, exposing U.S. government policies on the unpopular war in Vietnam. As expected, the Nixon administration sued the NYT in an attempt to ban it from publishing the documents, but the US Supreme Court, in a landmark decision for press freedom, ruled the prior restraint unconstitutional.

James C. Goodale, then the young chief counsel for the Times, was there leading the legal team every step of the way. This is his compelling, never-before-told story of what happened behind closed doors—the strategies, the decisions, the larger-than-life characters from the worlds of law, politics, journalism, and the military.

Price: $20:00
Publisher: CUNY Journalism Press
Publication Date: 2013
ISBN: 978-1939293084
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In his book, Fighting for the Press: The Pentagon Papers & Other Battles, Goodale presents a first-hand account of what happened as lawyers sought to defend the newspaper from the government. He remembers how he informed Harding Bancroft, the executive vice president of the Times, about a "secret newsroom project" involving a "history of the Vietnam War" that was classified "top secret sensitive." There was no precedent. Bancroft became "visibly upset." He said the Pentagon Papers could be the "most important event in the history of the Times" and it would be particularly "bothersome" if the Times published top secret documents.

The Times received legal advice to not publish the Pentagon Papers. It was argues that it would “not only be a crime to publish classified information, but it would be a crime even to look at the Pentagon Papers because they were classified,” and, “the Espionage Act covered the publication of classified information.” This was "flabbergasting" to Goodale, who found the First Amendment was absent from the lawyers’ analysis.

The Times wound up publishing after all, though Nixon immediately pursued an injunction. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the US government could not stop the Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers, holding that prior restraints were barred by the First Amendment unless the publication "will surely result in direct, immediate, and irreparable damage to our Nation or its people" and Goodale was the first to develop the now widely accepted arguments that the Espionage Act should not apply to publishers or the press.

Fighting for the Press thoroughly recounts each episode in the Pentagon Papers case, including the tactics of prosecutors who tried multiple times to introduce secret evidence of “harm” or “damage” done to the national defence into court proceedings.

This is the story of a constitutional victory whose lessons are as essential today as they were in the 1970s, which Goodale reminds us of, somewhat unrelentingly, in his final chapters when documenting in detail all of the positions Obama claimed to believe in on these issues while in the Senate, arguing he has systematically breached all of them in his pursuit of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.

This is certainly an intriguing and thought provoking read. However, it seems that the desire for contemporary comparison rather overrides the intriguing story within, eclipsing this book's uses as a casual or bedtime read.