“Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people.”
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black penned this iconic concurring opinion in the 1971 landmark case, New York Times Company v. United States. The ruling of this case made it possible for journalistic entities like The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish the then-classified Pentagon Papers without government censorship or restraint. On Sunday, June 13, 1971, The New York Times published portions of the leaked and top-secret 7,000-page report on the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
Among many things, the leaked papers revealed the government’s systematic lies to the American people and to Congress concerning America’s war efforts in Vietnam, including the futility of furthering war efforts. These lies spanned multiple presidential administrations and resulted in a severe legal battle between the government and the press. In response, the executive branch filed restraining orders and injunctions against the paper, contending that the publication would lead to “irreparable injury to the defense interests of the United States.” After a series of rulings on the injunctions by several lower courts, the case went to the Supreme Court on June 25, 1971.
The Court upheld the newspapers’ right to publish the documents, making it a major victory for press freedoms and asserting the press’ role as a government watchdog. Watchdog journalism is a form of journalism that seeks to unveil and denounce government wrongdoing and is a major tenet of a free press. It checks the value of elected officials’ statements and actions, making them more accountable to the public. Additionally, watchdog journalism helps a democracy be more transparent, keeping the power with the people. In the words of Justice Black, “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
Elected government officials wield power given them by the people. It follows, then, that those same officials are responsible to the people. A free press aids in facilitating that responsibility by ensuring that officials are acting in the public’s interest. This principle is widely agreed upon, as the 2019 State of the First Amendment Report showed that 72% of people agree that it is important for the news media to act as a government watchdog. Because of this fundamental concept of a free press, elected officials and members of the press have been known to clash, at times viciously. In New York Times v. United States, Federal Judge Murray Gurfein contended, “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.” In short, the price of a free press is heavy to those in government but it is a necessary part of their commission as public servants. It’s part of the job.
While news media outlets don’t run into Pentagon Paper-sized stories daily, they do face the undertaking of acting as a watchdog, ever vigilant and ever loyal to the people.