On playing former Berkeley dean, journalist Ben Bagdikian in Pentagon Papers film

Photo of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., by Hu Totya.

Actor Bob Odenkirk told a Newsweek interviewer that in making The Post, the new film about the Washington Post‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was struck by how reporter (and later UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism dean) Ben Bagdikian “treated journalism the way his (minister) father treated religion.”

In 1971, Bagdikian was an award-winning national editor at the Post when acquaintance Daniel Ellsberg gave him parts of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret report containing 3,000 pages of historical analysis and 4,000 pages of original government documents that revealed government deceit around the United States’ involvement and intentions in Vietnam.

A map showing major flashpoints during the Vietnam War.

The war killed more than 60,000 American soldiers and wounded another 150,000 of the more than 3 million Americans who served there from 1955 to 1975.

Bagdikian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide who came the U.S. from Turkey as an infant, persuaded the Washington Post to publish excerpts of the Pentagon Papers in 1971,  despite objections and threats from the Nixon administration.

Ellsberg was charged with stealing and holding secret government documents, but charges were dropped following a mistrial in 1973. The documents were declassified 40 years later and are now available online.

Ben Bagdikian

In a biographical report prepared in 2010 by the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, Bagdikian compared Wikileaks to his own history-making role in publishing the Pentagon Papers. He also recalled telling a Post board member, while debating whether to publish the Pentagon Papers information, that “if we don’t print them, it’s going to encourage the government to keep secret all the mistakes they make.” 

Actor Odenkirk said he connected to what he perceived as Bagdikian’s strong sense of moral character. 

Actor Bob Odenkirk plays Ben Bagdikian in the new film, The Post.

“Standing by your principles. Ben had a special position that allowed him to do that,” he told Newsweek. “(Ben) Bradley was in charge and Ben (Bagdikian) knew that he could be the voice of their shared principles and not have to worry about balancing everything out…

“I’ve been in charge, where you have to listen to every side. But I can relate to being the person in the back of the room who claims to know what’s right, and does know what’s right, but also has the luxury of being blunt  because he’s not in charge…It’s an indulgence, but a good one, to be the one who gets to speak up for the core principles and never waver and never have to see both sides.”

A Counterpunch article described Bagdikian as the “film’s moral and political center.”

An award-winning journalist and media critic, Bagdikian taught journalism at Berkeley from 1976 until his retirement in 1990. He served as Graduate School of Journalism dean at Berkeley from 1985 to 1988. Bagdikian died in 2015.

A commentary by University of Michigan historian Heather Ann Thompson examining the importance of the Post’s role in publishing the Pentagon Papers, even though it followed in the steps of the New York Times rather than breaking the story itself, appeared recently on history.com.  

Read the Newsweek interview