It would be hard to overstate what Ben Bradlee contributed to American journalism. Bradlee died Tuesday, and I join the parade of journalists saluting him as maybe journalism’s best editor ever.
Journalism’s proudest achievement of my lifetime was the Watergate reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which uncovered unconstitutional and un-American power abuses by the White House, including President Richard Nixon himself. The many abuses by presidents and their staffs since Nixon still do not match his arrogance in trying to manipulate an election and interfere with the execution of justice.
Many others played roles in exposing Watergate and bringing down Nixon: Judge John Sirica, Senators Sam Ervin and Howard Baker and their Watergate Committee colleagues, John Dean, Alexander Butterfield (who revealed the White House taping system), special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski, Woodward’s “Deep Throat” source Mark Felt, the Supreme Court, Peter Rodino and his House Judiciary Committee colleagues. But no one played a bigger role than Woodward, Bernstein and their Post editors, led by Bradlee.
As recounted in Woodward and Bernstein’s book All the President’s Men and portrayed by Jason Robards in the movie, Bradlee was a sterling model for editors: challenging his reporters to nail down their facts, find better stories and make every story better; reporting the truth fearlessly; holding the powerful accountable, then standing by his reporters when they came under fire.
I never approached Bradlee’s perch in journalism, but as a mid-level editor for the Des Moines Register and Kansas City Star and Times, I saw his influence in some of the top editors I reported to. And I tried to ask the same kinds of tough questions of the reporters who worked for me.
As a top editor of the comparatively insignificant Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, Minot Daily News and Cedar Rapids Gazette, I never flattered myself that I was anywhere near Bradlee’s stature. But I damn well knew from his model what my job was: To make my newspaper the best it could be, to set and uphold standards and to protect our newsroom’s integrity. I never became as intimidating as Bradlee (or the Robards version of him). But they were somewhere in the back of my mind every time I told a reporter he or she didn’t have the story and needed to try one more source, verify or debunk one more report, push harder for a source to go on the record.
“You don’t have it,” might be an editor’s most important words to reporters, words that weren’t spoken often enough then and certainly aren’t today. But every time I spoke them, I knew I was echoing Bradlee.
I know I’m not alone in viewing Bradlee as the standard against which all editors are measured. I probably describe the experience of a generation or two of editors. We all aspired to be like Bradlee and we all fall short. I salute him for setting the standard so high. I’m not the one to measure how high I reached in journalism, but I know I reached my peak (or will) in pursuit of his example.
I never got to meet Bradlee, but I sat behind him in 2012 when Woodward and Bernstein headlined a 40th-anniversary panel discussion of Watergate reporting at the American Society of News Editors conference. Bradlee wasn’t on the panel but joined the discussion as his reporters deferred to him on a few questions. He was in his 90s then and you could see that he was fading. But he’ll never fade as an example to journalists.
As my former Omaha World-Herald colleague Ken Freed pointed out when I saluted Bradlee last night on Facebook, Bradlee himself was powerful, with close ties to the Kennedys. I’m not aware of any way that the Post, on his watch, went soft on the Kennedys. All media gave President John F. Kennedy a pass on reporting about his personal life, which was standard procedure in that time (and had been for Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower). And Kennedy’s presidency was before Bradlee took over the Post newsroom in 1965.
But I “liked” Ken’s observation anyway. Skepticism and pointing out something that might be unpopular seemed a fitting way to remember Ben Bradlee.