I have had the good fortune to meet many people as a reporter. Some of them are anonymous, some famous, some of them are infamous and all of them have added to the tapestry of my life.
I met Ben Bradlee once and received a brief letter from him on an occasion. As I had a very limited interaction with him it would be inappropriate to eulogize the man. From my perspective I knew him only marginally better than I knew George Washington – a mere step above not knowing him at all.
He sent me a letter once when I was jailed in Texas trying to defend a reporter’s right to keep a confidential source. It was short and encouraging. I shook hands with him years later at a media event and exchanged pleasantries. In both cases he was cordial but our contact was brief and not very deep.
But there is no doubt the impact Bradlee had on the world of journalism. He died this week of natural causes at 93 and has been lauded by many high and low for his accomplishments as a Managing Editor for the Washington Post and later its Executive Editor.
Whatever Bradlee was or was not, I will take issue with describing him as “legendary;” as in the legendary editor of The Post who published the Pentagon Papers and guided the coverage of the Watergate scandal.
It is the editor in me which cringes when the term “legendary” is used to describe people who – in point of fact – actually existed or still exist.
He wasn’t a mythical Norse God, the pied piper or Robin Hood.
He was a working editor who – according to those who worked with him – stuck to his guns, followed stories wherever they went and told his reporters to “get it right.”
That is his professional legacy and something to which I can testify.
In today’s journalistic world there is a deep need for those who are committed to providing the news and doing it right. The rags of our time are too intent on pandering to either the right or the left and have left behind the art of doing it right.
The truth is we are very far from the ideal of wearing ourselves to get the facts. We are too easily misled, too easy to pander to the lowest common denominator and too anxious to join in the babbling of the uninformed rabble with opinions both meaningless and purposeless.
Reporters today for the most part are reduced to being nothing more than shills for whatever point of view they have sold out to at the moment.
With Bradlee telling his reporters to “get it right” what went unsaid was the warning to not take anything for granted. Don’t jump into the box of mediocrity with everyone else.
Stand out by standing up. Dig hard for the facts and be prepared to question all authority and your own dogma.
If you choose to be a reporter and a journalist and actually have any care for your profession, then you have to eventually look at those like Bradlee and assess and accept them for what they were: flawed human beings who understood other human beings far better than most.
Bradlee “set the ground rules – pushing, pushing, pushing, not so subtly asking everyone to take one more step, relentlessly pursuing the story in the face of persistent accusations against us and a concerted campaign of intimidation,” The Post’s Katharine Graham said in her memoir.
For anyone who has ever tried to push the envelope or struggled to get and publish information the government tried to stifle, if it happened after the 1970s then you were following in Bradlee’s footsteps even if you didn’t know it.
True, others had been there before Bradlee and I’m reasonably sure he’d be the first to acknowledge his gratitude and debt to those who came before him.
But his newsroom leadership is something we should be inspired to emulate today if for no other reason than the Republic for which we stand needs it. The indisputable fact of the decline of the integrity and mental acumen of those in Congress today screams for another Ben Bradlee.
I, as many my age did who wanted to be journalists, looked up to the renewed efforts of The Washington Post under Bradlee’s watch. We were inspired by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, but I confess it was Bradlee I admired as the driving force which made it all happen.
He was the buffer for his reporters, the cattle prod to stimulate them, the consummate politician and a guy who thought enough of a reporter in San Antonio Texas he’d never met to send him a letter encouraging him to stay the course and get it right.
“Stay the course. Get it right.” I could not say it any better.