Ben Bradlee and the Washington Post Today

Ben BradleeIt seems that Ben Bradlee has died. He is, of course, the legendary Washington Post executive editor who made the paper into something really great once upon a time. To me, he will always be Jason Robards in All the President’s Men. But otherwise, as usual, I don’t especially care. Celebrity deaths are just like the deaths of other people. Those who knew him grieve, but his death is hardly important. For the last couple of decades, he was better known for his wife Sally Quinn’s very inside-the-beltway cocktail parties.

I don’t mean to suggest that Bradlee doesn’t deserve respect. Not at all! A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, Ben Bradlee and Integrity. It featured a quote from Eric Alterman about Bradlee in his glory days, when he had just started his job as executive editor:

In his engaging portrait of Bradlee, Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman recounts an incident from 1969 in which two young Post reporters, Leonard Downie and Jim Hoagland, had worked for months on a story about racial discrimination in the Washington savings-and-loan industry. Titled “Mortgaging the Ghetto,” it was scheduled to run over a ten-day period. Just before that happened, a group representing the industry went to Bradlee’s office and told him that if the series ran, they would pull all their advertising from the paper—representing, even then, about $1 million in revenue. What did Bradlee tell Downie? “He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says, ‘Just get it right, kid,’ and walked away.”

That’s pretty awesome. I understand the economics of newspapers were different then, but I don’t think most editors would have acted as he did. In fact, I don’t think many people have a single example of such integrity and strength in their whole lives. So that’s a fitting obituary for the man.

Martin Longman has a different take on this from the “Bradlee was God!” obituaries that are streaming out. He called it, A Contrary View of Bradlee’s Death. It is contrary, but I think a better word would be “nuanced.” His concern is not Bradlee as a man so much as Bradlee as a symbol:

Personally, for all Bradlee’s accomplishments, and he had many, I find it impossible to divorce him and his salon from some of the worst pathologies of our nation in the postwar era. It’s hard to express how much contempt I have built up over the years for the Beltway consensus on American power and American politics, and Bradlee was literally the eye of that hurricane, the figurative lodestar around which that consensus condensed and revolved…

The permanent leadership in Washington has been failing us on a pretty consistent basis for so long that I can only wish that the passing of Bradlee might mark some kind of end point for hubris and banality.

Sadly, the Washington Post is a shell of the paper that Bradlee created, meaning that things have devolved far beyond the point that Bradlee could even be justly held responsible. Everything good he built has died, leaving us with a legacy of only his worst contributions.

I do wonder how long we are all going to look at the Washington Post and think of the great work they did on Watergate 40 years ago. Yesterday, I was marveling at the Pew Research report, Political Polarization & Media Habits. It contained the ideological makeup of the readers of 36 different news sources (including anti-news sources like Fox News and The Rush Limbaugh Show). It contained a tool that allows you to see the results for each source. And I was shocked to see that the Washington Post had an overwhelmingly liberal readership.

Why then is it that the Washington Post editorial page is so conservative? Well, I think it is that the paper doesn’t froth at the mouth the way the Wall Street Journal editorial page does. It is the very definition of Very Serious Thinking. So very much like Andrew Cuomo, the Post can claim that it is telling hard truths, just as it did during Bradlee’s early days. But then it was more interested in telling truth to power. Now, the Washington Post is all about telling the powerful’s truths.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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