The Post, Steven Spielberg’s latest excellent movie, details how both the Washington Post and New York Times obtained the top-secret papers from Rand military analyst Daniel Ellsberg that revealed the lies about why America got into the Vietnam war and the thousands of lives those lies cost.
The papers detailed lies that began from the days of Harry Truman up to the corrupt presidential administration of Richard Nixon and the attempts of the federal government to conceal the truth and punish those who revealed the lies to the American people.
As a newspaperman who also spent time in the corrupt world of Washington politics, I watched, covered and too often participated in a government and political system that lied to the American people, broke the law and threatened our democratic way of life.
Today, more than four decades after the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate debacle that followed, we see America’s freedoms again under attack from current corrupt and dishonest president and a complicit Congress that sits back and lets it happen.
The newspaper industry that I have loved and served for more than half a century is under assault from dishonest politicians and a lackadaisical public that depends on a gossip-driven stream of partisan propaganda and misinformation.
Yet the two newspapers I still admire and respect continue to thrive because they push ahead to expose the corruption and lies that must be examined in a time when truth is a disposable commodity that is too often replaced by “spin” and alternative realities.
Both made mistakes in that pursuit. Janet Cooke, the young reporter who claimed to have a college degree she never earned, won a Pulitzer Prize the Post voluntarily returned after discovering the child heroin addict in her stories did not exist.
The Times suffered a similar fate with Jayson Blair, another young reporter who sat in his apartment and wrote descriptive pieces in parts of the country he never visited or covered. Both papers published extensive apologies and made changes to make sure it did not happen again.
The same thing happened with the New Republic magazine in Washington after discovering star writer Stephen Glass wrote fiction, not news stories. I ran into the same thing as founder and publisher of Capitol Hill Blue when someone we believed didn’t do what they said. It wasn’t the first apology I had to write. It wasn’t the last.
As humans, we make mistakes. We should admit them, apologize and try to make sure they don’t happen again.
How often does our current president, Donald Trump, admit his mistakes or lies? He garnered headlines for years with claims Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii and is a Muslim. The best investigative sources we have found the documentation that proved Obama’s birth in Hawaii and his pastors confirmed his Christianity and beliefs. He finally said he accepted Obama’s birth records as fact, but never apologized and still repeats the lies.
Fact-checking services document more than 2,000 lies, misinformation and exaggerations in just the past year.
Richard Nixon stood before the American people and the television cameras and swore he knew nothing about the Watergate break-in. “I am not a crook,” he declared. He was a crook and resigned in disgrace after evidence proved his involvement in the coverup of Watergate and other crimes.
The Pentagon Papers documented a pattern of lies and coverups that ran from the administrations of Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon. Our government lied and continued a war it knew it could not win and let thousands of American military men and women die to conceal the truth.
Truth must be absolute. In Washington, it is not and hasn’t been for a long, long time.
“Washington lives in the gray, that vague area between the white that is truth and the black that is not truth,” said the late Lee Atwater, the Republican political guru who helped recruit me to work as a political operative in the early 1980s. “Learn to use the gray to make it the acceptable truth.”
(Disclosure: During the writer’s time on the political side, he served five years as vice president of political programs for The National Association of Realtors and was profiled by The New York Times in 1989. He was also quoted a a spokesman for political campaigns and the association various times by both the Times, The Washington Post and other publications from 1981-1992.)
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