GJR book review: Opening the Pentagon Papers

Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles
Author: James Goodale
Publisher: CUNY Journalism Press, 2013
Paperback: $20, 260 pages

Whistleblowers, leakers, and a battle between the working press and the government. James Goodale’s “Fighting for the Press: The Inside Story of the Pentagon Papers and Other Battles” tells a story that has just as much importance today as it did in 1972, when the battle for press freedom reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Goodale, the lead attorney for the New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case, gives a firsthand description from the Earl Caldwell case that became Branzburg v. Hayes to the culmination of the Pentagon Papers case, with the Supreme Court voting 6-3 to allow publication of the papers.

In early 1972, the New York Times published a number of stories that chronicled the deception of the U.S. government regarding the war in Vietnam. The papers, many of them historical in nature, provided instances where the government lied to the public about what it was doing and documented the mistakes made in fighting the war in Vietnam. The U.S. government tried to enjoin the New York Times from publishing, saying that the papers were classified, and that publishing the papers would be a breach of national security. Goodale puts the reader in the boardrooms as the decisions to take this case to court are made. He explains the strategies and the mistakes that were made.

The book moves at a surprisingly fast pace, with enough twists and turns to make the reader think he or she is a part of the case. The strength of Goodale’s book is the writing. Although he sometimes writes with a touch of arrogance and tends to name-drop, Goodale manages to give the reader an inside look at one of the most important media Supreme Court cases – and he does so in a way that makes the reader wonder what will happen next.

Even though the book is nonfiction, it has wonderful characters, from Richard M. Nixon, the president who wants to take down the media, to the plucky lawyers from Goodale’s team who helped to win the case. Goodale writes with a storyteller’s clarity, building drama and making sure to delineate the good guys from the bad. He builds suspense with every legal decision made en route to the Supreme Court, and he also details the good and bad jobs done by the lawyers arguing the case on both sides.

The only negative is the sometimes condescending tone that Goodale takes. Get past that and the book is a great read.

What stands out in this book are the parallels that can be drawn from the Pentagon Papers to today’s headlines. Goodale ends the book with a warning about President Barack Obama, writing that the current president is reminiscent of Nixon in many ways – and could be worse. He points out that Obama is currently indicting more U.S. citizens under the Espionage Act, the same charge the government tried Daniel Ellsburg with, than any other president in the country’s history.

He warns that the current approach of many news organizations of bringing stories to the government first, before publishing, can become a major problem in the freedom of the press. He cautions at the same time that news feeds should become aware of the NSA spying on the public and the Department of Justice tapping the phones of the Associated Press.

Scott Lambert is a faculty member in the English Department at Millikin University. He is a former managing editor of Gateway Journalism Review and worked as a sports journalist and editor for 13 years.