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.

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Robert J. Rosenthal

Robert J. Rosenthal is the chief executive officer at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Rosenthal was the executive director of CIR from January 2008 to spring 2017. When he joined CIR, it had a staff of seven and when he left, it had a staff of nearly 70 and was recognized as one of the leading nonprofit newsrooms in the country. He is an award-winning journalist and worked for some of the most respected newspapers in the country, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle. Rosenthal worked for 22 years at The Inquirer, starting as a reporter and eventually becoming its executive editor in 1998. He became managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2002 and left in 2007. During this time, he led the investigation into the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. That work became known as the award-winning Chauncey Bailey Project. Before joining The Inquirer in 1979, Rosenthal worked for six years as a reporter at The Boston Globe and three and a half years at The New York Times, where he was a news assistant on the foreign desk and an editorial assistant on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pentagon Papers project. As a reporter, Rosenthal won numerous awards, including the Overseas Press Club Award for magazine writing, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for distinguished foreign correspondence and the National Association of Black Journalists Award for Third World reporting. He was a Pulitzer finalist in international reporting and was a Pulitzer judge four times. He has been an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Rosenthal is also currently advising or on the board of multiple journalism nonprofits. In 2018, Rosenthal was named a fellow of the Society of Professional Journalists for his “extraordinary contribution to the profession of journalism.”