Ben Bradlee: a Very Special Person

Posted by Michael Getler on


Ben Bradlee

Loving the boss is not an emotion generally found in the newsroom of a big metropolitan daily newspaper filled with cranky reporters and editors. But at The Washington Post, from 1965 until perhaps all memory fails, there were hundreds of journalists who loved Ben Bradlee, the extraordinary and courageous editor who led and guided that newspaper for 26 years and who died at his home Tuesday evening, Oct. 21, at the age of 93.

Every once in a while—but not too often, I hope—I take advantage of this space to write about something that doesn’t have much to do with PBS. In this case, there are at least some personal links.

One of Ben’s best pals was Jim Lehrer, the venerable journalist and anchor who put the PBS NewsHour on the map, led it for some 40 years and produced an hour-long PBS documentary featuring Bradlee in 2006. On the best friend list was also “Bo” Jones, who went from the CEO spot at the Post to CEO of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions a few years back, and recently retired from that position.

Both Lehrer and Jones took part in a lengthy segment on the NewsHour last night (Oct. 22) about Bradlee.

NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill was a reporter at the Post from 1984 to ’91. And Ben hired me in 1970 for what turned out to be 35 years with the paper as reporter, foreign correspondent and editor, including four years as editor of the International Herald Tribune, which was then jointly owned by the Post and the New York Times, and then five years as ombudsman at the Post.

Indeed, it was Bradlee who, with a push from publisher Katharine Graham in 1970, appointed the first ombudsman at the paper, a position that would be filled by a dozen or so men and women—many of them distinguished journalists—over the next 43 years, but which was done away with two years ago.

Bradlee said he wanted to be open with readers and show that the paper could take a punch, when it got something wrong, as well as throw a punch.

A Rare Editor, Even at the End

The obituaries, tributes and appreciations about Bradlee that have appeared in the papers, on television and the web starting Tuesday evening have said it all. An extraordinary person, who led an extraordinary life and who impacted our national life and the lives of so many who knew him or worked for him. What struck me about these articles is how infrequently one reads such things these days about people who lead institutions.

Mourning for Ben Bradlee in some way is mourning for a bygone era, the so-called “Golden Age” of journalism. But Ben would not be mourning. He would be confident that somehow, someway, the financial model would be found that would keep great teams of reporters and editors together, able to hold the powerful accountable, to shine a spotlight on those who need help, to keep citizens informed from City Hall to the White House.

Perfect Timing

I don’t want to repeat what has already been so eloquently said and written about Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, but he has been in my thoughts for many years and it has always struck me how so many things came together to make his moment on the stage so important to so many of us.

Ben came to the Post in 1965, before Vietnam really began to come apart for Americans and before Watergate, two events that soon would re-shape our country in years to come; events in which presidents—one Democrat, one Republican—would not tell the truth to the country on grave matters of war and governance. And when these events did begin to unfold, they triggered Ben’s most motivating traits. He hated lying, especially in high places, and loved to dig for the truth. And he loved the people who did the digging. Truth would emerge, he always said. That’s what good newspapers do, day after day. Reporters, he said, were the best lie detectors.

What followed were two of the most important journalistic enterprises of our time: The New York Times and Washington Post reporting and court battles on the Pentagon Papers and the Post’s Watergate investigation.

The Not So Secret to Success

Ben had a lot of help. He had assembled, in waves, an amazing collection of tough and talented reporters and graceful writers. He surrounded himself with cerebral and hard-nosed editors, and superb photojournalists.

Perhaps most important, his journalistic life in 1965 had suddenly merged with a then new and still untested publisher named Katharine Graham, who had brought him to the paper and who would turn out to be as tough as her tough-talking new editor. Together, they were like American royalty, an amazing convergence of the best editor and publisher in what was to become an enormously powerful, energetic, ambitious and somewhat unpredictable force in mainstream journalism, in the country and, indeed, even the world.

During the mid-1970s, when I was the Post correspondent in central Europe, I traveled often to the Communist eastern-bloc countries and interviewed many political dissidents. Many of them told me that The Washington Post had restored their faith in American democracy and press freedom after Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. They were the most courageous people I had ever met. Ben would have loved them. He liked courageous people.

No Better Place to Be

To be inside the Post newsroom in those Bradlee-Graham years was, I believe, like no other place that a journalist would wish to be. There was lots of energy. The chemistry between the owner and the editor was special. There was confidence that when the chips were down, and they seemed to be down a lot, they would do the right thing. That is something we took for granted in those days but that is not a sure thing anymore in lots of places.

Ben had a natural genius for leadership and for motivating a staff; something that can’t really be explained. I always thought that if he had been a politician instead of a journalist, he could have been president. You just wanted to bust your backside for him, not so much because he was the boss but because he had this infectious excitement and joy about anything that got closer and closer to the truth.

He encouraged reporters to spread their wings, supported generous book leaves for those with more to say than a newspaper can contain, and my sense is that Post writers through the past several decades have turned out more important volumes on important subjects than any other institution.

Ben took an okay paper in the mid-1960s and made it into a powerhouse that was awarded 18 Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure. But there was money to do this. The paper was flying high.

The Disaster

There were failures as well, most notably the 1981 award of a Pulitzer that had to be returned in a disgraceful and illuminating moment for Bradlee and the paper. What had seemed to Bradlee and some of the top editors as an amazing tale of an 8-year-old heroin addict named “Jimmy” turned out to be too amazing to be true; a made-up story by a Bradlee favorite, writer Janet Cooke.

Immediately after Cooke confessed, Bradlee gave the then-ombudsman Bill Green, an administrator at Duke University and not a career journalist, free rein to look into and write about what happened. In four days, Green produced a no-holds-barred 15,000 word report, published in the Post that, in my view, was the best work ever done by a news ombudsman.

Years later, according to author Jeff Himmelman, Green would write to Bradlee recalling the episode, one of the worst in the paper’s long history. Green recalled what Bradlee said to him after first reading the ombudsman’s report: “Green, you ungrateful son-of-a-bitch, I salute you.” That’s pure Bradlee.

Following a Tough Act

The year 1991 essentially marked the end of the Ben Bradlee-Katharine Graham era. So how do you replace people like that? Here, too, the Post was fortunate. Ben resigned that year and Mrs. Graham’s son, Don, succeeded his mother as publisher while Ms. Graham retained her corporate roles. She died in 2001. Bradlee was succeeded by his Managing Editor, Len Downie, who had spent his professional life at the Post.

As personalities, Don and Len could not have been more different from Kay and Ben. But Don, fortunately for the paper, did not fall far from his mother’s tree and preserved the paper’s dedication to its own high standards, did not succumb to the new Wall Street mantra of higher profits every quarter and continued to fund and encourage high-cost but important journalism. And Downie’s lower-key but just as strong commitment to those standards led the Post to 25 more Pulitzers, the most any newspaper has ever been awarded under the same executive editor. He left the paper in 2008.

Ben Bradlee was a person that you not only will never forget, but you will always remember him in a certain way, even as you watch the years take their toll.

 R.I.P Ben Bradlee. 

Posted on Oct. 23, 2014 at 10:48 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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