What Ben Bradlee Believes

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A recently published book about the legendary editor may not please all critics, but it contains fundamental insights about a man and his journalism philosophy.

bradlee-body.jpgReuters

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Ben Bradlee was the greatest newspaper editor of his generation. But the attention to Jeff Himmelman's just published book, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, has largely focused on peripheral details, for example, Bob Woodward's relationship with his source "Deep Throat," FBI official Mark Felt. The controversy centers on Bradlee's skepticism, expressed once years ago in an interview for his memoirs, about minor aspects of the story as told in Woodward and Carl Bernstein's book about the case. The fact is that nothing of any consequence in the Watergate saga has been affected. Richard Nixon was forced from office because of crimes and cover-ups by the president and his aides. Woodward, Bernstein, Bradlee, and the Washington Post staff were primarily responsible for driving that story to its historic resolution.

The majority of Himmelman's book is based on his access to Bradlee's letters, memos, and descriptions of his unique charisma and commitment to journalism at its finest, which made him so formidable. The book is 473 pages long and delves deeply into Ben's life and times, especially the years at the Washington Post. There is so much material that readers, except for the most dedicated, may find there is more than enough. Woodward and friends of the Bradlees have denounced the book as a betrayal, most vociferously in a New York Times Sunday story that excoriates Himmelman.

But embedded in Yours in Truth there are fundamental insights about journalism and the role of a dynamic press. In March 1968, Ben chose, over the objections of his publisher and proprietor, Katharine Graham, to run the text of an embargoed copy of the Kerner Commission report on race in America only a few days before its official release. On the day the text appeared, Bradlee wrote a memo to Mrs. Graham that is as good a summary of his approach to news as anything else that followed over the years:

Katharine. . . . Our duty is to publish news when it is news and that means when we learn and when we have checked its bona fides and when we have secured the information legally and when we have checked for libel and when we have assured ourselves that publishing is not against the national or public interest. . . . A newspaper that yields to any one of these pressures takes a sure step -- perceptible however small -- out of the newspaper business . . . each such step yields the independence we all cherish to someone else. Often, in this town to a President or his representatives . . . a newspaper that yields to any one of these pressures sacrifices one of (its) most precious assets -- the vitality and commitment and possibly the respect of its reporters.

Now comes full disclosure: I worked for Bradlee at the Washington Post for eighteen years and every book published by PublicAffairs, the company I founded in 1997, carries a tribute to him that says "he supported his reporters with a tenacity that made them fearless." PublicAffairs also published Himmelman's collaboration with Quinn Bradlee, Ben's son, on his memoir, A Different Life. In the acknowledgements of Yours in Truth, Himmelman calls me a friend and "a sounding board." I talked to him about the book, but had nothing to do with how it was written or edited.

There are substantial parts of the book that recount dramatic episodes in Bradlee's tenure as editor, which ended in 1991. Most of these stories have been told before, including in Ben's entertaining memoir, A Good Life, and Katharine Graham's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History. Ben instructed Himmelman to write about everything he learned in his reporting, and he did so, which means there are expressions of Bradlee's candor as events unfold and private asides about family matters that have made the principals in the saga furious.

But for all the elements of the book that have landed with a thud, it does underscore what it was about Bradlee's leadership and professional courage that made an indelible impression on journalism. Ben was never considered an introspective person or an ideological one. Yet his convictions about the role of the press run very deep. In a 1974 speech to the Dirks Newspaper Financial Forum, Bradlee said:

Unique among manufactured products, the newspaper is completely different every 24 hours and it can't be recalled for mistakes of fact or judgment. It is produced in an adversary environment where the goals of the reported inherently conflict with the goals of the reporter and the reader. It is this daily conflict that gives concrete importance and meaning to the First Amendment, to freedom of the press. Without that freedom, there is no conflict, and without that conflict there is no truth.

Ours is an era of 24-hour cable and masses of Internet-driven opinion that too often overwhelm what has actually happened. Bradlee flourished in a time when what counted was the hard news he put into the paper each day and the standards he demanded from his reporters and editors and, for the most part, their intense loyalty to his credo.

Every portrayal of Ben emphasizes his swashbuckling newsroom style, which was irresistible. The closing coda of Yours in Truth nicely conveys a subtler side of Bradlee's persona. Weeks after he retired as editor, he wrote to a senior at a North Carolina high school who, as editor of her school's paper, asked him to summarize the key to his "integrity and extreme dedication." Bradlee replied:

I've always had trouble explaining myself and my principles. I believe in hard work. I believe in fighting all kinds of domination. I believe in steering clear of the big shots. I believe in total honesty. I believe in compassion. Sincerely, Ben Bradlee.
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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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