In My Words: Ben Bradlee's greatness was found in his commitment to the truth
Using stories from his own interactions with the journalistic legend, Associate Professor Anthony Hatcher authored a reflection for regional newspapers on the October death of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
The following column appeared recently in the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News, the Winston-Salem Journal, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News and the Gaston Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.
Ben Bradlee's greatness was found in his commitment to the truth
By Anthony Hatcher - firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Bradlee arrived at the airport in a cab, wearing a worn green topcoat. He carried a leather briefcase and a small overnight bag. Open and gregarious, he politely protested after the charter jet pilots and I offered to carry his things.
I spent an hour talking with the former editor of The Washington Post when I flew with him from Washington for a 2006 visit to the university where I teach journalism. Bradlee represented the Old Guard, powerful men who led powerful newspapers in the latter half of the 20th century.
He asked me about my campus and about my family. He talked easily about his wife Sally, his son Quinn, and reporters Art Buchwald, Tom Brokaw, and Woodward and Bernstein.
Art Buchwald, a humorist who wrote for the Post for decades, had entered a hospice only a couple of weeks earlier, and Bradlee spoke somberly about his friend’s declining health. (Buchwald died in 2007.) He brightened as he chatted fondly about another friend, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.
And, of course, there was the famous duo of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Post reporters who had broken the Watergate story. “I always thought Woodward and Bernstein should have won the Pulitzer instead of the paper getting it,” he said.
Bradlee died Oct. 21 at the age of 93. He had been out of the spotlight suffering from dementia for a few years, but the news still hit me hard.
Maybe it’s because we never expect our legends to die. Maybe it’s because Watergate, the scandal that transformed Bradlee’s Washington Post into a journalistic powerhouse, remains a fixture of popular imagination. Maybe it’s nostalgia for a bygone era.
Whatever the reason, we’ve appropriately lionized a man who did as much to promote a free press as just about anyone else in American history. From his fight to publish the Pentagon Papers to his leadership in taking down a sitting president, the Boston native, a World War II veteran with a soft spot for the underdog, inspired countless journalists to pursue truth in the face of adversity, me included.
He also demonstrated poise and dignity when forced to return a Pulitzer Prize after publishing fabricated stories. Reporter Janet Cooke had concocted a tale about Jimmy, an 8-year-old hooked on heroin, setting off a citywide hunt to save a boy who didn’t exist. Bradlee said the episode humiliated both him and the paper.
Journalism was different when Bradlee and the Post were in their heyday. Real, hard news was paramount, although fluff had its place. It was Bradlee who transformed the Post’s “women’s pages” into the much heralded Style section.
But even light news needs to be true, not just unsubstantiated rumor. Bradlee’s curiosity and fanaticism for fact checking was instilled in the journalists at the Post, and in those of us inspired by him to become journalists.
Opinions were restricted to the opinion pages and had no place in the news sections. The lines weren’t crossed. Today, particularly in cable news and online social media, those lines sometimes disappear. A recent Pew Research study found that CNN’s programming was 46 percent commentary and opinion. Fox News content was 55 percent opinion, and MSNBC’s offerings were a whopping 85 percent opinion.
Scotty Pelley and Brian Williams are journalists. Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow are not.
Too many news people now do journalism the quick and easy way. There is too little checking of sources, in part because so much information is at our fingertips, but that doesn’t mean journalism doesn’t play an important role in our culture.
Some national news organizations still practice solid journalism. Nonprofit outlets NPR, ProPublica, and the PBS Newshour are excellent sources of news. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal still provide in-depth global news coverage, as does The Washington Post.
Which brings us back to Ben Bradlee. The Washington Post was transformed into a great newspaper under his leadership, and under current owner Jeff Bezos, there is hope the paper will thrive.
On that short plane ride with me eight years ago, Bradlee expressed his enthusiasm for newspapers. When he was later introduced to the then-editor of the university’s student newspaper, he playfully raised his arms and bowed. “His prime may have been before my lifetime, but as a journalist I will cherish that day forever,” the former student, who is now a sportswriter, wrote after Bradlee’s death.
Young journalists who get it, who are hungry for good stories and relentlessly dig for facts, are Ben Bradlee’s legacy.
Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (email@example.com) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.