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The Most Dangerous Man in America

March 20th, 2012 · No Comments

Lauren Bowie, Becca Sears, Sam Foster, Nick Farr
The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009)
Dir. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith
21 March 2012

Newspaper Influence: Pentagon Papers Revealed

The Most Dangerous Man in America is a documentary based on Daniel Ellsberg and the unveiling of the Pentagon Papers.  This was an extremely crucial moment in the world of journalism and the newspaper industry, as it was the key player in distributing information about the truths of the Vietnam War to the American people.  Ellsberg’s past enabled him to release this information, as he had previously served in the Pentagon and was also in Vietnam as a civilian.  Later, he resumed his work at the RAND Corporation, where he aided in the study of classified documents regarding the conduct of the Vietnam War that had been commissioned by Defense Secretary McNamara (Daniel Ellsberg).  These paper would later be coined as the Pentagon Papers.  In 1969, Ellsberg secretly made photocopies of the classified documents of which he had access with the help of his children and former colleague Anthony Russo.  Once these papers were leaked, he and his family remained in a hotel room while the news was distributed through different circulations, including .  Once enough of them had been read, the family came out of hiding and Ellsberg was revealed as the man who released the Top Secret documents.  Ellsberg has continued to participate in activist movements and demonstrations of topics he feels passionate.

The involvement of the press in the Pentagon papers scandal can be paralleled with that of the Watergate scandal. When Daniel Ellsberg decided to come forth with copies of 43 volumes of the Pentagon papers, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan published the story, which made it to the front page. This newspaper article completely publicized the event. Street protests, lawsuits and political controversy ensued. At this point, much of the American public became skeptical of President Nixon, which eventually led to the Watergate scandal. Bob Woodward of The Washington Post caught wind of the Watergate scandal, he began to publish information from an anonymous source, “Deep Throat”. As the two reporters of the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, pursued their investigation, they eventually “connected cash found on the burglars to a slush fund used by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, a fundraising group for the Nixon campaign” ( This scandal, coupled with the exposure of the Pentagon papers, led to the eventual resignation of President Nixon. The press dug for information and was able to reveal corruption in the White House, which shows the power of newspapers and the media in the exposure of political scandals.
The New York Times v. United States (1971) was significant because it was the first time that the U.S. government tried to enforce the notion of “prior restraint” (New York Times).  The decision in the court case made the Constitution stronger in regard to protecting the press from printing classified materials.  Even the idea of “prior restraint” couldn’t override First Amendment protections such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech (New York Times).
The leak of the Pentagon Papers was also important because it set a judicial precedent for First Amendment cases.  The press was no longer tied to the government (The Most Dangerous Man in America).  In “Terrorism, Law Enforcement, and the Mass Media: Perspectives, Problems, Proposals,” M. Cherif Bassiouni notes, “In the Pentagon Papers Case, several Justices indicated that the inappropriateness of prior restraint in that case would not immunize the press from subsequent prosecution” (41).  Bassiouni further observes that the threat of criminal charges can cause the media to self-censor,

“to sustain a constitutional attack, a criminal sanction punishing publication of ‘lawfully obtained, truthful information’ after the event requires ‘the highest form of state interest,’ and demonstration that it’s punitive action was necessary to further the state interests asserted” (41).

In “Newsgathering, Press Access, and the First Amendment”, Timothy Dyk notes that after World War II, the formation of a stronger government led to “a corresponding need for a more effective press with greater access to information:” (929).  Dyk further notes that in this situation, “press access must be protected so that the press can bare the secrets of government and inform the people” (929).  But, expressing the view of the Supreme Court in its role as the highest legal authority, Justice Potter Stewart weighed in when he noted that the press clause in the First Amendment “should be construed to afford the institutional press special protection in certain circumstances, allowing the press to perform its proper role as both an adversary to, and check upon, an ever expanding government” (Dyk 931).

New York Times v. United States (1971) was a famous Supreme Court case, also known as the Pentagon Papers case.  President Nixon tried to prevent The Washington Post and New York Times from printing classified documents which detailed the history of U.S. military activities in Vietnam.  The fundamental question that the Supreme Court had to answer was, did Nixon’s efforts to censor publication of the Pentagon Papers violate the First Amendment? Nixon argued the idea of “prior restraint” was necessary in order to protect the government.  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times, claiming that security should not be used to compromise the first amendment.  The Court also argued that the publication of the documents would not put the U.S. in immediate danger and thus, the idea of prior restraint wasn’t justified (IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law).
This documentary is a clear and vital piece that explains the importance of the newspapers during this time.  The New York Times took a huge risk in publishing this information, which triggered the further distributions among other circulations, including The Washington Post.  It is clear the leaks allowed for further investigation of the government, including the Watergate Scandal, mentioned earlier.  Becoming media literate allows us to examine the importance of all forms of media and how they have affected our society throughout history.  These types of things are still happening today.  WikiLeaks can be paralleled with the leaks of the Pentagon Papers, as their goal was and is to bring important news to the public eye.  Information continues to be leaked through these sources, including files related to the Guantanamo prison and 92,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan between 2004 and the end of 2009 (WikiLeaks).  It is extremely important to stay informed and up to date with the information that is being distributed by journalists, through the news or the internet.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it in any way the responsibility of a news organization, such as the New York Times, to be aware of the publishing of sensitive and classified documents in order to protect national security in a time of war?
  2. Does the general public have a right to know everything that our government does? Or is there a level in which secrecy is a necessary part of the governing process in order to protect the citizens interests and ensure safety? Is the news obligated to make sure it doesn’t release information that undermines the safety of American citizens?
  3. Is the publication of the pentagon papers covered by the first amendment (Freedom of the press) and if so how does the first amendment cover this act?

Important Quotes

  1. “There was a pattern of presidential lying.” Daniel Ellsberg
  2. “People have not asked enough of their public servants in terms of accountability, we need the courage to face the truth about what we are doing in the world and act responsibly to change it.” Daniel Ellsberg
  3. “What in God’s name have we been fighting for in this country for two- or three-hundred years to have the right to speak and the right to publish and the right to think against a threat by the gunman, if all we’re gonna do is give it all up when someone sends you a telegram.”
  4. “It was a crime from the start, with no end in sight. The hundreds of thousands we were killing was unjustified; it was no better than homicide.” Ellsberg
  5. “Henry, you’re about to get a lot of clearances higher than top secret that you did not know existed that is going to have a sequence of effects on you. First, you’ll feel exhilaration, and then you’ll feel like a fool. Then you will come to think everyone else is foolish, and in the end you just stop listening to them.” Ellsberg

Works Cited

Bassiouni, M. Cherif. “Terrorism, Law Enforcement, and the Mass Media: Perspectives,

Problems, Proposals.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-)  Vol. 72, No. 1 (Spring, 1981), pp. 1-51.

“Daniel Ellsberg.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.


Dyk, Timothy B. “Newsgathering, Press Access, and the First Amendment.”

Stanford Law Review Vol. 44, No. 5 (May, 1992), pp. 927-960.

“Most Dangerous Man.” Most Dangerous Man. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.


NEW YORK TIMES v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of

Law. 12 March 2012. <>.

“Times Topics: The Pentagon Papers.”  New York Times Online.

The Most Dangerous Man in America. Dir. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. Kovno

Communications, 2009. Netflix.

“WikiLeaks.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.


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