Born in the Ottoman Empire (in what is now Turkey), when Bagdikian was still an infant his family fled due to persecution of Armenians, and settled in Stoneham, Mass., where his father was a Protestant church minister. Bagdikian went to journalism school and became a newspaper reporter. He took time out of that profession to be an officer in the Army Air Forces during World War II, and eventually landed at the Washington Post. There, in 1971, as the Post’s assistant managing editor for national news, Bagdikian got a phone call urging him to bring an empty suitcase for a secret meeting in Boston. He went. On June 13, the New York Times had published the first installment of “The Pentagon Papers” — officially United States — Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense — that had been declared Top Secret in part because the study found, as the Times put it, that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Administration “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about the Vietnam war.
The report had been leaked to the Times by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, and the Nixon Administration, which was still pressing the war in Vietnam, was unhappy: Attorney General John Mitchell got a federal court to order the Times to cease publishing anything from the leaked report on “national security” grounds. The meeting Bagdikian was summoned to was with Ellsberg; the suitcase was to take another copy of the report to the Post. Bagdikian delivered the papers directly to Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, and now Bradlee had to decide whether to publish information from the Top Secret report. Bagdikian argued the point succinctly: “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish,” he told Bradlee — and the paper did, starting June 18. Bradlee quickly got a phone call, from the Assistant U.S. Attorney General, threatening him with prosecution if he didn’t agree to stop publishing from the report. “We must respectfully decline,” Bradlee replied to the caller — William Rehnquist, who went on to be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rehnquist asked for a federal court injunction against the Post, too, but Judge Murray Gurfein refused, ruling that “[t]he security of the Nation is not at the ramparts alone. Security also lies in the value of our free institutions. 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.” The Times and the Post joined forces in the legal case, which was so urgent that it made its way to the Supreme Court within days. The Court ruled 6-3 on June 20 that the government could not impose “prior restraint” on the press, a landmark decision upholding the Freedom of the Press in the Constitution’s First Amendment. “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 and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in his opinion. By then, 15 other newspapers had received copies of the “Papers” and were publishing excerpts.
Bagdikian was a strong voice about the other side of the equation, too, arguing as early as 1957 that newspapers should practice strict ethics, and have ombudsmen to address reader concerns; in 1972 he became the Post’s ombudsman. Shortly afterward, he left reporting to teach, and became the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1983 he warned in his book The Media Monopoly of the dangers of the concentration of ownership in the news media — that consolidation let to both a concentration of power, and a reduction in the number of voices to perform the duties Justice Black wrote about in his Pentagon Papers decision. Yet, in the 2004 revision of his book, Bagdikian noted that the scant 50 large media corporations that owned the news business had consolidated to just five corporations. He retired from U.C. in 1990, and in his 1995 memoir noted, “If I were choosing my life work all over again, would I be a reporter? You bet I would.” Ben-Hur Bagdikian died at his Berkeley home on March 11. He was 96.