It’s the climax of the 1975 hit Three Days of the Condor. On a Manhattan sidewalk fugitive CIA analyst Robert Redford, having outgunned his assassins, confronts his double-dealing boss, who demands he join the sinister plot to control the world’s oil. No way, Redford says, he’s already blown the whistle. And the camera pans across the street where a truckload of newsprint is being delivered – to The New York Times. Game over.
Ahh, Hollywood. But what really happens when you’re a major league whistleblower? Say you’ve acquired sensitive documents of huge public importance, very hush-hush. Although it’s bound to annoy powerful people and may expose you to reprisal, you deliver them to the world’s mightiest news media, including The New York Times, which use them in sensational articles that have worldwide impact.
The Condor’s triumphant fourth day? Well, no..read on
He goes on to discuss the realities of being a major league whistleblower and why that might turn you into something of a freak. ( It's my understanding that all major whistleblowers are fairly eccentric if not downright weird --- you have to be to do such a thing.)
But the problem is that this is not ending of Three Days of the Condor and the way it actually ended reinforces his thesis (about whistleblowers, if not Hollywood.)
Here's the final scene he describes:
Redford: Well, go on home, Higgins. Go on. They've got it.
Higgins: - What?
Redford: You know where we are. Just look around. They've got it. That's where they ship from. They've got all of it.
Higgins: What? What did you do?
Redford: I told them a story. You play games, I told them a story.
Higgins:Oh, you--you poor, dumb son of a bitch. You've done more damage than you know.
Redford: I hope so.
Higgins: You're about to be a very lonely man. It didn't have to end this way.
Redford: Of course it did. (turns away)
Higgins: Hey, Turner ... How do you know they'll print it? You can take a walk, but how far if they don't print it?
Redford: They'll print it.
Higgins: How do you know?
That's the last line of the movie, which the writer acknowledges and correctly ends his own piece with as well, but I think he glibly dismissed the real point of the movie. Perhaps it's true that when the film was made many people assumed that the New York Times, having recently gone to court to secure the right to print the Pentagon Papers, would of course print Redford's story. But the film clearly indicated that collusion between the government and the press was just as likely --- indeed, the whole thing was dripping with contempt for governing institutions. I've been thinking a lot lately about the similarity between the 70s and now, particularly in that regard, and I think this is a good example.
Cynicism about the mainstream press has been around a long while, even during the halcyon days of enemies lists and the Pentagon Papers. And generally it's correct to be skeptical of their motives. There have not really been all that many crusading publishers or muckraking journalists in American history. They're Big Business enterprises looking out for the bottom line and that rarely upsets the status quo.
I do have to say, however, that Bill Keller's performance regarding Wikileaks has been one of the most unseemly demonstrations of snotty, aristocratic presumptuousness I've ever seen. I'm not sure William Randolph Hearst wouldn't be embarrassed by it. Even in an era when elites of all stripes are behaving like petulant children, Keller stand out as a prime ass, and that's saying something.