A leak without an end

In 1971, The New York Times shook the US government with the publication of top secret Pentagon documents and reports which revealed that the country’s military involvement in Vietnam was much greater than the people and Congress had been told. Richard Nixon’s administration rushed to stop the publication by judicial means, claiming that the leak (by a Pentagon official) jeopardized national security. The Pentagon Papers, as the issue became known, was a head-on collision between the press and those in power. The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision that involved great disagreement among the justices, ruled that the Constitution is weighted in favor of freedom of the press. It acknowledged that the publication of confidential documents could damage national security, but it noted that the government had not proved that this was the case in this instance. The Pentagon Papers showed that the government had been hiding important aspects of America’s involvement in Vietnam and this helped to create a climate of suspicion around Nixon’s White House. In the end, the Pentagon Papers did not turn out to be harmful to national security; on the other hand, neither did they end the war. But the Pentagon Papers, along with the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon in 1974, constituted one of the brightest moments in international journalism. Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor and the driving force in the Watergate investigation, noted in an interview with Kathimerini a few years ago: «I think the Pentagon Papers were maybe more important than Watergate in standing up to government and not letting government get away with things.» In combination, The New York Times and the Washington Post and the two stories established, for our time, the role of the press as a check on the other powers – executive, legislative and judicial. To achieve this, the two papers clashed with power and were accused of undermining their country. Today these cases inspire journalists and publishers to take risks in order to serve the public interest. Before this, the press had already been playing a crucial role in uncovering scandals and pointing out unacceptable conditions in, for example, lunatic asylums and prisons – revealing what the public eye would not otherwise see. But the clashes of the 1970s established, for our time, the necessary rivalry between politicians and journalists. In every country, without exception, brave journalists risk their lives and freedom to inform readers. They go up against those who would tame them, muzzle them, control them – whether these be governments, state officials, interest groups, advertisers, friends or foes. It goes without saying that journalists must not be in cahoots with those in power, as if they were both members of the same team. In our country, unfortunately, the absolute right to be informed has fallen victim to the illicit marriage of politicians and journalists. In this way, it has become the subject of deal making: Politicians give secret documents to journalists in order to gain their favor, journalists raise their value with their bosses by bragging of their good relations with politicians while at the same time offering special services and support to those politicians at the expense of other politicians and the public. Instead of being on separate sides and each trying to serve the public, too many journalists and politicians join forces in order to serve each other’s interests (and their own). Journalists, of course, have every right to chase the news in whatever form it comes. (They will be judged by the way they use it, in any case.) But the desire of politicians to enter into exchanges with them is hugely irresponsible. Whether this is the result of arrogance, of insecurity or of indifference, it is a danger to society. It distorts the roles of politicians and journalists and in the end it undermines both in the eyes of the public. This is dangerous for our journalism and our politics, and, consequently, for our democracy.