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Former Globe, Post editors discuss Pentagon Papers

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

(From left) Northeastern’s Jonathan Kaufman, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin, and Northeastern law professor Woody Hartzog discuss the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and the new film Stephen Speilberg film about those events, “The Post.” Above, Storin discusses Globe court documents.

By Ben Thompson Globe Correspondent 

Former editors of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post joined the director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism Tuesday evening for a discussion on the historic decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon papers -- and the new Steven Spielberg film recounting those events, called “The Post.”

Former Boston Globe editor Matt Storin and the Post’s former executive editor Leonard Downie joined Northeastern’s Jonathan Kaufman for “Hollywood, The Press, and The President,” a talk that focused on the Pentagon papers’ covert release, first to The New York Times, then to the Washington Post, then to the Globe, and the U.S. government’s legal efforts to stop the news organizations from publishing the classified documents.

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The Pentagon Papers, famously leaked by defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, revealed top-secret information about the country’s role in Vietnam and the scope of U.S. involvement in the region over several decades. The newspapers fought to publish the documents, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 that they had a right to make the papers public under the First Amendment.

The case is viewed as a landmark decision in support of freedom of the press.

“Never, ever since that has the government tried to stop anybody from publishing something before it’s published,” said Downie, who worked as a technical consultant on “The Post,” which arrives in theaters this December. “It sets this country apart from every other country in the world in terms of freedom of the press.”

Downie talked about tense meetings between the Washington Post’s executive editor Ben Bradlee , played by in the new film by Tom Hanks, and its publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), regarding papers’ publication and potential impact.

The panelists highlighted similarities between the national mood when the Pentagon Papers were leaked in 1971 and today, including an increased political polarization and attacks on the media.

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Downie said Spielberg fast-tracked “The Post” this year because of those parallels and his desire to tell the story to new audiences.

Downie discussed Spielberg’s meticulous work to ensure the film’s historical accuracy, and his hope that “The Post” — developed from a script by Graham — can stack up against his favorite films about journalism, “All The President’s Men,” which recounts the dogged reporting that uncovered Watergate, and “Spotlight,” which focused on Globe’s investigation into the Catholic church sex abuse scandal.

On Tuesday, the National Board of Review voted “The Post” the best film of 2017, making it a front runner in the Oscar race for Best Picture.


Ben Thompson can be reached at ben.thompson@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @Globe_Thompson