I first learned about the Pentagon Papers while xeroxing copies of documents stamped TOP SECRET and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. I was 22 years old, less than a year out of college. The Vietnam War was raging, the country was in turmoil, and I was a copy boy at The New York Times.
One evening in early 1971, I got a phone call while at a friend’s house. The caller asked for me and my friend handed me the phone. “Who’s this?” I wondered, and how had they found me? “Robert?” someone whose voice I did not recognize, asked. “Yes?” I replied. “Come to Room 1111 at the Hilton Hotel tomorrow, bring enough clothes for a few weeks, and don’t tell anyone where you’re going.” “What? Who the hell is this and what are you talking about?” I demanded.
It turned out the caller was a Times editor. I went to the Hilton, where a team of Times editors and reporters were secretly working on the Pentagon Papers project. I had been chosen as an editorial assistant for the project and within a few hours, after the publisher’s office was closed for the day, I was xeroxing the Pentagon Papers, keeping track of them in two five-foot tall metallic green filing cabinets in a Manhattan hotel room.
Nearly thirty-seven years later, after working at The Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and San Francisco Chronicle I joined the Center for Investigative Reporting as its Executive Director in January of 2008. Since then, I’ve met Daniel Ellsberg, and the time we’ve spent swapping stories about those days has helped me realized that my early exposure to those documents, that historic story, and the reporting team of which I was a small part, helped frame my journalistic values.
Individuals like Dan Ellsberg who, from inside government or corporations, come forward to help expose wrongdoing can make all the difference. They do so at potentially huge personal risk, because they believe that the truth must be told. When sources like Ellsberg are willing to come to journalists, their actions can lead to important and powerful change.
The Most Dangerous Man in America is a reminder of a tumultuous time. The facts have changed but the issues the film raises certainly exist in today’s even more complicated world. On a personal level, the film is a stirrer of emotion and memory. It made clear to me that I had a ringside seat to a unique moment in our history and was a reminder of how life’s journeys and often fragile strands are interwoven in unexpected webs. On a journalistic level, the film is a powerful reminder of the crucial role watchdog reporting plays in our democracy.
If you’re in the Bay Area, I hope you will join us for the Mill Valley Film Festival screenings of The Most Dangerous Man in America on Sat. October 17, 6:45PM at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, or Sun. October 18, 3:15PM at CinéArts @ Sequoia 2. Click here for more information.