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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ben Bradlee's Fourth Estate

The Birth Of A Nation
This policy geek was born the last day of 1964, entering the world as one of the very last baby boomers. That’s right, while everyone else is counting down the last few moments of this year, I will be celebrating my big 50, half of my life down, half to go.

Needless to say, 1965 was full of promise all the way around. We would love to say that we started out fearless, always interested in, and willing to, stand up for the truth. But that wasn’t to happen for decades.

Growing up, nothing about the news was ever interesting. The drone of that dull hour between ok television programming, and appointment viewing at night, there was always the local news. And my parents were riveted. I just heard blah blah blah Christmas, blah blah blah, commercial, blah blah blah blah blah. They heard everything. The news was expected to be factual, and the stuff of serious water cooler talk the next day.

Thank God there have been people to carry on the struggle of the fourth estate all along the way, regardless of my adolescent disinterest. To uphold all the values expected by the public’s trust, that was part and parcel of taking the helm at The Post, in 1965. That’s the year Ben Bradlee took over their newsroom.

Upholding the standards of journalism is a lost art in all but a few corners these days, and is the blogger’s legacy now. In 2014, news is accessible to all of us, in real time, and to those of us with a conscience there is a certain amount of responsibility (that some of us take on) to push back on misinformation, and push out education. At the same time, the only reason there is a need to push back on misinformation is because it exists, en masse, as part of regular governance. That mass produced misinformation spreads, shared like wildfire, taken as gospel by a generation that still believes if someone took the time to write it down, it must be true. Whoa is me, that just ain’t the truth. The now lost giants of the grand ‘ol days of the evening news would be shaking their heads, and holding back some tears, if they knew what was going on in cable news today.

The Life Of A Legend
One of those larger than life truthtellers was the amazing Benjamin C. Bradlee who presided over The Washington Post newsroom for 26 years, and guided The Post’s transformation into one of the world’s leading newspapers. On October 21st, just this last week, Bradlee died at his home in Washington of natural causes. He was 93.

Ben Bradlee was fearless. Back in 1965, he came in the door of the The Post newsroom with an eye toward making it even better, the best it could be, and by so doing, he set the bar for everyone else in the news business. From the challenge of Watergate, to the independent style he offered his writers, he rode out his tenure putting just the right measure of motivation into his staff, creating an atmosphere where everyone wanted to please him, wanting to be the best version of the fourth estate they could be. He drew to himself a talented staff, who soon made Bradlee the most celebrated newspaper editor this side of J. Jonah Jameson, Jr.

Bradlee looking at layout of "Nixon Resigns" Coverpage
Mr. Bradlee’s patrician good looks, gravelly voice, profane vocabulary and zest for journalism and life all contributed to the charismatic personality that dominated and shaped The Post. Modern American newspaper editors rarely achieve much fame, but Mr. Bradlee became a celebrity and loved the status. Jason Robards played him in the movie “All the President’s Men,” based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book about Watergate.

“He was a presence, a force,” Woodward recalled of Mr. Bradlee’s role during the Watergate period, 1972 to 1974. “And he was a doubter, a skeptic — ‘Do we have it yet?’ ‘Have we proved it?’ ” Decades later, Woodward remembered the words that he most hated to hear from Mr. Bradlee then: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”

Mr. Bradlee loved the Watergate story, not least because it gave the newspaper “impact,” his favorite word in his first years as editor. He wanted the paper to be noticed. In his personal vernacular — a vivid, blasphemous argot that combined the swearwords he mastered in the Navy during World War II with the impeccable enunciation of a blue-blooded Bostonian — a great story was “a real tube-ripper.”

This meant a story was so hot that Post readers would rip the paper out of the tubes into which the paperboy delivered it. A bad story was “mego” — the acronym for “my eyes glaze over” — applied to anything that bored him. Maximizing the number of tube-rippers and minimizing mego was the Bradlee strategy.

Mr. Bradlee’s tactics were also simple: “Hire people smarter than you are” and encourage them to bloom.

“It was hard to explain the full force of his personality to people who never met him,” said Ward Just, the reporter-turned-novelist whom Mr. Bradlee sent to cover the Vietnam War for The Post in 1966-1967. “He really was one of those guys you’d take a machine-gun bullet for. You only meet three or four of them in an entire lifetime.”

Throughout those 26 years, Ben Bradlee steered The Washington Post through some of the most trying and triumphant episodes in the paper’s history. The most compelling story of Mr. Bradlee’s tenure, almost certainly the one of the greatest consequence, was Watergate, the political scandal touched off by The Post’s reporting that ended in the only resignation of a president in U.S. history, Richard Nixon. Hard to believe a newspaper did that, but they did.

Bernstein, Bradlee and Woodward at “All The President’s Men,” screening.
(Brad Barket/Getty Images)

Most historians will say Mr. Bradlee’s most important decision, made with Katharine Graham, The Post’s publisher, may have been to print stories based on the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon history of the Vietnam War.

“For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession — it was a public good vital to our democracy. A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told — stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better. The standard he set — a standard for honest, objective, meticulous reporting — encouraged so many others to enter the profession. And that standard is why, last year, I was proud to honor Ben with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, we offer our thoughts and prayers to Ben’s family, and all who were fortunate to share in what truly was a good life.” ~~ President Obama
President Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bradlee.
(November 2013, Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

What made Mr. Bradlee’s Post famous was Watergate, but the story that probably made the Watergate coverage possible was the Pentagon Papers, initially a New York Times scoop. Daniel Ellsberg, a disaffected former government official, gave the Times a set of the papers, a compilation of historical documents about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Times journalists worked for months on stories about them, which began to appear June 13, 1971. The stories created a sensation, even though they contained very little dramatic revelation.

After three days of stories, the Nixon administration successfully sought a federal court injunction blocking further publication, the first such “prior restraint” in the nation’s history.

Ellsberg then offered the documents to The Post. Two days after the court order, Post editors and reporters were plowing through the Pentagon Papers, deciding whether or not to write about them.
That moment, Mr. Bradlee wrote in his memoir, “crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and determined and confident of its purpose the new Washington Post had become.” Defying the government in printing those stories proved that The Post was “a paper that holds its head high, committed unshakably to principle.”

The Post did publish. The Nixon administration argued that publication of stories based on the Pentagon Papers could undermine national security, an argument brought to the Supreme Court, who surprisingly ruled 6 to 3 that the government could not restrain the newspapers. That was when our Supreme Court still had the will of the people first and foremost in their minds.

Eighteen years later, the man who had argued the government’s case before the Supreme Court, former solicitor general Erwin Griswold, admitted in a Washington Post op-ed essay that the national security argument was phony. “I have never seen any trace of a threat to the national security from the publication” of the Pentagon Papers, Griswold wrote in 1989. Mr. Bradlee loved that article, and he carried a copy in his jacket pocket for weeks afterward.

“If Ben didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.” ~~ Tom Brokaw.

The sense of independence earned in 1971 was critical to The Post’s pursuit of Watergate, which began the next June. At every stage, it was a compelling yarn, from the days when Woodward and Bernstein established connections between the burglars and President Richard M. Nixon’s reelection campaign to the amazing weeks, more than two years later, when it became clear that the president would not survive in office.

“Newspapering deals with small daily bites from a fruit of indeterminate size,” Mr. Bradlee wrote later. “It may take dozens of bites before you are sure it’s an apple. Dozens and dozens more bites before you have any real idea how big the apple might be. It was that way with Watergate.”
Mr. Bradlee called it “the story that put us all on the map.” Neither he nor The Post was ever the same again. The recognition grew after the movie made from “All the President’s Men” appeared. Mr. Bradlee was relieved that director Alan J. Pakula made a good and essentially accurate movie that seemed to capture the real spirit of The Post and the story.
Mr. Bradlee had edited The Post for nearly nine years when Nixon resigned in August 1974. In those years, he had created a great newspaper and made it famous. One of the most influential moves Bradlee made was to station correspondents around the globe, opening bureaus across the Washington region and from coast to coast in the United States. He created features and sections — most notably Style, one of his proudest inventions — that were widely copied by others. Mr. Bradlee added profiles . . . that went way beyond the bare bones of biography.

"We wanted to look at the culture of America as it was changing in front of our eyes. The sexual revolution, the drug culture, the women’s movement. And we wanted it to be interesting, exciting, different.” ~~ Ben Bradlee
During his tenure, a paper that had previously won just four Pulitzer Prizes, only one of which was for reporting, won 17 more.

“Ben Bradlee was the best American newspaper editor of his time and had the greatest impact on his newspaper of any modern editor,” ~~ Donald E. Graham, who succeeded his mother as publisher of The Post and Mr. Brad­lee’s boss

In July 1991, Ben Bradlee, not quite 70, retired as executive editor of The Post amid an outpouring of emotion.

“Ben’s influence remained very much alive at The Washington Post long after he retired, distinguishing the newspaper and our newsroom as unique in journalism.” President Obama saluted Mr. Bradlee’s role at The Post when giving him the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2013: “He transformed that newspaper into one of the finest in the world.” ~~ Leonard Downie Jr., who succeeded Mr. Brad­lee as The Post’s executive editor in 1991

The Rungs Of His Ladder
Bradlee first created the New Hampshire Sunday News as one of seven staff members who filled the 64-page paper every week. 
The editor, Ralph M. Blagden, “had an almost contagious sense of how to find a story and where it might go,” Mr. Bradlee wrote in his memoirs. “For every answer we gave him, he had 50 more questions, and I learned everything from him in two years.”

Later, he was to join Newsweek as a European correspondent. In four years, he covered wars in Algeria and the Middle East, peace conferences in Geneva, and the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier in Monte Carlo.

“The sheer joy and romance of being a foreign correspondent is hard to explain, even harder to exaggerate,” Mr. Bradlee wrote in his memoirs. 

The Post Co. bought Newsweek in March 1961, and Bradlee became a certifiable member of the journalistic elite in a capital city where reporters were just starting to become more glamorous and prominent.

Mr. Bradlee’s appointment as deputy managing editor responsible for national and foreign news was announced July 7, 1965. On Nov. 15, 1965, The Post announced that Mr. Bradlee would be the paper’s new managing editor, a title he would hold until 1968, when he was named to the newly created position of executive editor.

Publisher Katharine Graham, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward,
Managing Editor Howard Simons; and Bradlee. (1973, Mark Godfrey)

At the outset, Mr. Bradlee decided “to concentrate on the one thing I did know about: good reporters.” He relied heavily on one good reporter at The Post: Laurence Stern, who proved to be his most important sidekick in the early years. Stern was a wry, irreverent intellectual with ambitious ideas for journalism. Mr. Bradlee named him The Post’s national editor.

Mr. Bradlee brought Ward Just to The Post from Newsweek and soon sent him to Vietnam, where he wrote eloquent, gritty dispatches that undermined the Johnson administration’s public optimism about the course of the war in 1966 and ’67. He found George Wilson, a writer for Aviation Week, who became a distinguished Pentagon correspondent. He hired an old friend from Paris, Stanley Karnow, a Time magazine correspondent in Asia, to be The Post’s China watcher, based in Hong Kong.

Mr. Bradlee’s biggest coup, in his estimation, was hiring David S. Broder from the New York Times. Hiring Broder in September 1966, Mr. Bradlee recalled in 2000, “was of course frightfully important, because then outsiders began to say, ‘Oh my God, did they get Broder? Why did they get Broder? What did Broder see there that we don’t know anything about?’ ”

Soon after he joined The Post, Broder said, “I knew it was heaven for me.” Mr. Bradlee’s Post was fast, loose and fun, and it gave Broder and other self-starting reporters plenty of room to flourish. Laughter and irreverence were crucial ingredients. Mr. Bradlee played favorites, so the people who made him laugh, or who wrote those tube-rippers, agreed that working for him at The Post was a heavenly experience. Those left out of Mr. Bradlee’s magic circle could feel their exclusion with some pain.

The changes he made were not guided by any grand design or elaborate philosophy of journalism. “I was simplistic,” he said in 1991, discussing those early days. “If you made the paper better every day, and you got better people working for you, and you reached higher, the paper would get better.” It was a lesson he said he learned from his private grade school in Boston: “Our best today, our better tomorrow.”

Lying, especially lying by public officials, particularly offended Mr. Bradlee. He wrote and lectured on the subject for decades.

“Ben’s famous drive for a good story makes it easy to overlook his good judgment on matters ranging from national security to personal privacy,” ~~ Boisfeuillet Jones Jr., who was The Post’s lawyer when Mr. Bradlee was editor and who later became publisher.

Post reporters such as Just, Harwood and Nicholas von Hoffman, a daring writer who learned his craft at the old Chicago Daily News, began to write with a confidence and an edge that was seen in the “new journalism” being published in Esquire magazine but was rarely on display in daily newspapers. Broder, Harwood, Haynes Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winner from the Evening Star, and their colleagues made The Post the country’s leading chronicler of national politics, Mr. Bradlee’s favorite subject.


In 1991, on the eve of his 70th birthday, Mr. Bradlee retired. He still looked and acted like a man much younger.

“Whenever I found myself alone on the streets of Beirut, I would just shrug off the shelling, the gunmen, and the dark corners, telling myself there is this distinguished eminence up there who really appreciates and understands the true meaning of courage in journalism. . . . For me you will always be the grand, brave man of the news who watched over me and made me want to give just a little bit more. Thank you for giving us all something so special to believe in.” ~~ Nora Boustany, Lebanon Correspondent For The Post.
“He took The Post, then affluent and filled with underutilized potential, and made it a formidable national newspaper worthy of a head-to-head competition with the [New York] Times. He did it in a way that made the paper itself a joyous place to work. The paper reflected his personality. He was exuberant, competitive and combative if challenged. He made The Post a magnet for young reporters looking for a chance to play in a very high-stakes game.” ~~ David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter.

Mr. Bradlee wrote “Conversations With Kennedy” and his memoir, “A Good Life." Both books were bestsellers. Bradlee, divorced twice, is survived by Quinn, a Washington Post columnist whom he married in 1978; sons Ben Jr., Dino, and Quinn; daughter Marina; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

He was “the grand, brave man of the news.” ~~ Washington Post staff writer Nora Boustany, in a telegram from Beirut upon hearing of Bradlee's passing.

Humbled, The Policy Geek

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