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Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, by playwright Geoffrey Cowan, explores the secret history of the U.S.'s decision to escalate involvement in the Vietnam War, while simultaneously telling the American public that it was trying to get out. The play, which is based on interviews with the participants and on actual trial transcripts, details the government's attempt to suppress classified information in the "Pentagon Papers," under the guise that publication would have dire consequences for national security, by suing both The New York Times and the Washington Post to prevent publication. A showdown between the government and the Post ensued, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Post, as it became apparent that much of the "classified" information was, in fact, already part of the public domain.
Led by a spirited cast, Top Secret is a funny, smart, and engaging illumination of the relationship between a press that's supposed to be free and independent and the U.S. government. It resonates with younger generations, as well as those who lived through it, as issues of free speech, and the government's attempts to suppress it, continue to pervade our society.
The February 25 performance of Top Secret was followed by a conversation between Geoff Cowan; Bob Shrum, senior fellow at NYU Wagner; and Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism and mass communication at NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.
Stephens identified this as a "noble" moment in American history, when American culture really started to resent and repel government secrecy.
This was the first time that the establishment attacked an objective press for reporting on issues of national security, and it led to a public distrust that culminated in Watergate.
While we still see examples of secrecy within the government-the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib blocked by the Justice Department, for example-the press generally behaves more responsibly than critics imagine. In fact, according to Stephens, there are no incidents in American history when the mainstream press has jeopardized national security by printing "sensitive" information. Moreover, the influx of technology, especially the Internet, has made it more difficult for the government to keep secrets from the press and the public, both nationally and around the world.
So how does the press make the decision to publish information that could be damaging to the U.S.? It comes down to the idea that restraint is inconsistent under the First Amendment, but that doesn't mean there aren't arguments for not printing sensitive information. It will only take one time for a bit of information to get in the wrong hands, and the consequences could be devastating. Therefore, as Bob Shrum pointed out, increased freedom of the press must lead to increased responsibility by the press.
The truth is that the government can still stop the printing of stories, and newspapers today certainly don't have the financial security to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. government. But the U.S. Supreme Court's ability to enforce the First Amendment remains a bastion of the rights of free speech.