Until the time that Richard Nixon came around, the family was deeply tied to all U.S. Presidents and the people in their Administrations. Members of the Graham family along with certain people who worked for the paper, were often eating dinner at the White House. Needless to say, the paper was very friendly to both J.F.K. and L.B.J., even during the Vietnam War. They weren’t friends with President Nixon. He wasn’t a warm and fuzzy kind of guy.
A reporter for The New York Times (a huge competitor of The Washington Post), got his hands on some top-secret documents regarding the Vietnam War including information on what led up to the war and why we remained in it. They printed a scathing article about Kennedy’s and L.B.J.’s Administrations, which the DOD and DOJ immediately began shutting down, claiming the articles negatively affected national security and that the officers of the NYT's would be imprisoned.
One of the worsts stories that got out was that L.B.J. received reports stating we couldn't win the war early on, but his Administration kept sending troops to Vietnam. L.B.J. didn't want to be responsible for the U.S.'s first surrender and that's exactly where it was headed. He was hoping that people would still see it as a just and worthwhile cause through using public relations, at least until he finished his term and could pin the loss on someone else.
The DOJ filed an injunction which prevented the New York Times from printing any more articles and they began working towards arresting people involved in the leaks and the article that was written. They demanded to know the source of the information. Since they were getting shut down from the story, the government employee who leaked the documents to the Times began leaking documents to The Washington Post.
The problem being the Post was just about to launch their new stock on the American Stock Exchange, the Graham family would keep a few seats on the board, but it would be publicly traded. Huge investors were already lined up to make the stock’s first day on the market successful. The Washington Post knew if they too got shut down by the federal government and that the owner of the Post got arrested, that any chance of launching a new stock would be over; it would be a fiasco.
Katherine Graham (who owned the paper), was told by pretty much everyone, including her attorneys, that they shouldn’t release articles about what the government had done or risk being in the same boat as the Times. They all wanted the stock to be issued because a lot of them were going to make a lot of money. Graham stressed over the decision, but her family’s legacy was at stake and their commitment to reporting the news based on 1st Amendment rights.
She truly risked it all and told the staff to print an article they were working on that would blow the whistle on both Kennedy and Johnson regarding various government cover-ups regarding the war. As expected, they immediately got a call from the DOJ threatening legal action and demanded they immediately stop writing any more articles.
The Supreme Court took on the case within days and heard arguments from The New York Times and The Washington Post (who worked together on this one), and they heard from federal government lawyers. The government lawyers were trying to convince the court that the information was classified and could hurt national security. To their shock, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media. They said that the news media is here to serve the governed not the governors. I like that. Their decision was a shot heard around the world.
The Supreme Court said there was nothing in the information that was shared with the public that would endanger military operations or military personnel. I don’t know if some people realize this, but a lot of times the Federal Government classifies documents that have nothing to do with national security but instead about covering up mistakes by powerful people. So much for transparency.
Winning the Supreme Court battle helped light a fire under The Washington Post that was previously known for writing a lot of fluff articles that mostly benefited previous Administrations. They began aggressive reporting and brought in the famous Bob Woodward who ended up taking down President Nixon.