IN 1997, Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, recalled how concerned she was in June 1971 about the survival of the paper as she and her staff awaited a US Supreme Court adjudication on the Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers — a secret study of the Vietnam War.
“I fully recognised that the soul of the newspaper was at stake,” she said at the time to editor Ben Bradlee.
The Pentagon Papers, which had been compiled on the orders of US defence secretary Bob McNamara, had been leaked to the Post by Daniel Ellsberg, and after the publication of the first extracts an injunction had been sought by the Nixon White House.
The decision to go ahead and publish had been taken after much soul-searching because earlier, the New York Times, which had been the first to receive the papers, had already been restrained by a court injunction.
The matter, crucial to the freedom of the press, was now before the Supreme Court, and it was due to make known its decision on June 30, 1971.
“Everyone in the newsroom was deadly quiet, waiting for the decision,” recalled Mrs Graham.
Deputy national editor Mary Lou Bratty heard the news on an open phoneline to the Supreme Court. She jumped on a desk and called out: “We win and so does the New York Times!” The newspapers were free to publish.
By a six-to-three vote, the Supreme Court had ruled that the government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification” for restraining further publication of the Pentagon Papers as endangering national security.
“At the Post, having regarded ourselves as doing the public’s business, we were gratified by the result,” said Mrs Graham. It was an important day for the role of a free press in a democracy.
Months later, at the end of 1971, Katharine Graham discussed the issues surrounding publication of the Pentagon Papers in a speech she gave as Denison University.
“I still maintain what I said then, which was essentially that we believed from the start that the material in the Pentagon Papers was just the kind of information the public needed in order to form its opinions and make its choices more wisely.
"We regarded their publication not as a breach of national security, but, rather, as a contribution to the national interest — indeed, as the obligation of a responsible newspaper.”
Supplying the public with the information it needs — especially when powerful people in high places wish to keep that information secret — so that the public can make its choices more wisely, can make really informed choices — that’s the primary obligation of a responsible newspaper.
We are fortunate here in Ireland in having responsible newspapers, and they have served Irish society well, but for how much longer?
That’s not an academic question anymore. The reality is that the print industry is in near-crisis. Across the board newspaper circulation have been declining sharply, and revenue streams from advertising are drying up.
And not even the most optimistic media analysts are willing to predict any reversal of these very worrying trends.
It’s time to acknowledge that the future for Irish newspapers is looking bleak, very bleak indeed. In fact, too much time in recognising this may already have been lost. The implications of this not just for the print industry, but for our democracy could be very serious indeed.
This was acknowledged the other day by the chairman of the Press Council, Sean Donlon, when he told a meeting of the Association of European Journalists In Dublin that the press in Ireland is threatened today as never before.
Mr Donlon said there were two main threats: the first was posed by tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube, while the other was caused by what he called our
“curious” defamation laws.
More than 50% of Irish people
now received their news via social media, Mr Donlon said. But social media companies were not subject to any regulation. They were hovering up the advertising revenue on which traditional media had previously depended and were not employing trained journalists or editors, relying instead on other professional news gatherers and on selective algorithms.
Big tech companies are not run by altruistic individuals, said Mr Donlon. In fact, they are operated by rapacious capitalists. These companies were not just a huge threat to traditional media, they were also attacking the very foundations of democracy.
Some legislative initiatives had been taken elsewhere To counter this, and the government should look at these.
Meanwhile, at the recent Fianna Fáil Archie’s there was a welcome acknowledgement that measures to help newspapers and traditional media organisations are now needed.
The party’s spokesman on communications, Timmy Dooley, said: “The one thing that is now sure is that journalism is under threat — phenomenally so — because of falling revenues, falling circulation, falling advertising. It is our view that in order to protect professional journalism, State support should be provided.”
The essence of that professionalism is well illustrated by story of the of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, because that story encapsulates in one episode the vital role newspapers play in not just disseminating news but in providing context for that news and supporting it with comment and analysis.
Of course newspapers, like the societies they serve, have evolved over the years. They have not been immune to the rise of celebrity culture for one thing, nor should they be.
Even as recently as 10 years ago you would search in vain for a broadsheet with a front page photograph of a supermodel, film actress or rock star. Today, such photographs are commonplace, and serve as a barometer of change within newspapers.
Sport has always been an important ingredient of a newspaper’s make-up and appeal: coverage today has expanded significantly as television has fed the public’s appetite for all sport, and now it often spills onto the front page.
Show business, fashion, travel, food, motoring and health issues nowadays receive far more extensive coverage in newspapers. There is also, in keeping the growth of a more permissive society, much more frank and open treatment of sex.
And the rise of feminism since the 1960s has ensured that women get far more media attention than their mothers did, while also playing a far more prominent role within newspapers themselves.
Not everything that newspapers do today falls into the “serious” category. There is assuredly an “entertainment” element to modern newspapers, not just here but elsewhere.
But their primary task, their overriding responsibility — their very raison d’etre — remains gathering and placing at the disposal of citizens the kind of information they need to in order to form opinions and make wise choices. That requires good journalism and that costs money, so the economic viability of newspapers is now, more than ever, a priority.
The essential — and vital — work of a newspaper is today just what it was in 1971 when Katherine Graham addressed the students of Denison University. But to continue that work, they must survive.
It is now being increasingly recognised that in order to ensure that survival State funding in one form or another is necessary. How that might be arranged, how it might be provided, remains to be explored, and there is surely a role here for the Press Council and the NUJ.
What is needed immediately is a government commitment to make that funding available. The sad lesson of the Irish Press — the demise of which in 1995 I had painful personal experience of, having worked for that newspaper for 22 years — is there before us.
Is it now to be followed by others as apart of an inexorable process of decline?
In the absence of newspapers what will the quality of our public discourse be like?