Neil Sheehan stood tall among reporters revered in newsrooms across the nation.
Sheehan, who died Thursday at age 84 from Parkinson's disease complications, was one of the famous New York Times reporters whom young idealistic journalists sought to emulate.
Best known for initiating the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his epic account of the Vietnam War, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam."
Sheehan received the Pentagon Papers, a massive U.S. government report on America's escalation of the Vietnam War through the years, from Daniel Ellsberg, a government analyst who had illegally copied the document.
As a Times article accompanying Sheehan's obituary in the Times Thursday discloses, Sheehan himself used subterfuge and deception to duplicate Ellsberg's copy of the report.
Fearful of governmental prosecution, Ellsberg forbade Sheehan from copying the report, allowing him to read it. But he gave Sheehan the key to his apartment in Cambridge, Mass., and Sheehan took the report and copied it when Ellsberg left on a trip. The Times article tells a harrowing story of Sheehan and his wife copying the report at neighborhood print shops, then transporting the pages to New York City, buying an airplane seat for the several suitcases needed.
After the Times began publishing the report, the Nixon administration went to court to stop the newspaper, citing national security. When a judge halted the Times' publication, the Washington Post began printing the document. The U.S. Supreme Court on June 30, 1971, ruled in favor of the newspapers, finding the government sought unconstitutional prior restraint of publication.
Sheehan took 15 years to complete "A Bright Shining Lie," which viewed the career of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann in Vietnam as the paradigm of America's disastrous involvement in the war. The book with its complex portrait of the U.S. military and Vietnamese society unveils the war's tragedy with the narrative power of a Homeric epic.
The understanding of Vietnam came from personal experience; Sheehan was one of the reporters whose slow disillusionment with the war led to critical articles and increasing public opposition. First reporting for United Press International, then the Times, Sheehan along with the Times' David Halberstam, the Associated Press' and Times' Malcolm Browne and CBS' Morley Safer uncovered the U.S. military's deceptions.
Publication of the Pentagon Papers and the Washington Post's unraveling of the Watergate scandal represented the high point of American newspapers' power.
Such a massive commitment of resources is hard to imagine today, even with the newspapers' revival from online subscriptions.
With the Internet and cable TV, the media environment is more fragmented today, although the Times and Post still hold immense power to set the national agenda. The Trump administration has attacked the media even more vociferously than Nixon's.
But young idealistic reporters still arrive to follow Sheehan's bright, shining example, whether they know it or not.