Alex Brandon/AP/File
Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post, listens during an event sponsored by The Washington Post to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate, at the Watergate office building in Washington, June 11, 2012. Bradlee died Tuesday, according to the Washington Post.

Remembering Ben Bradlee: Legendary newspaperman and tenacious leader

Ben Bradlee's triumphs at the helm of The Washington Post and his graceful handling of internal scandal have left an indelible mark on American journalism.

Tributes to legendary newspaperman Ben Bradlee, who died Tuesday, largely focus on what many consider his signature achievements at The Washington Post: coverage of the Watergate break-in which led to President Nixon’s resignation and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

Indeed, his well-chronicled commitment to speaking truth to power surely changed the direction of modern journalism and inspired a generation of young reporters to focus on investigative reporting. However, even by Mr. Bradlee’s own assessment, the event that underscores his legacy most painfully – and serves as a prescient cautionary tale for the 21st century newsroom – is the 1981 scandal over a manufactured story that garnered the paper a Pulitzer Prize – one of 19 earned during Bradlee’s 26-year stint at the helm of the paper.

In his 1995 autobiography, “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” Bradlee examined the incident in which Janet Cooke, a young African-American reporter who wrote a compelling narrative about a young, African-American drug addict named Jimmy, ultimately confessed to fabricating the harrowing tale of a heroin-addicted child. Through the pioneering use of an ombudsman, the paper conducted a thorough internal investigation, which revealed that Ms. Cooke had also falsified her own résumé. The paper returned the Pulitzer, Cooke was fired, and Bradlee turned his critical eye inward on the modern newsroom.

"White reporters, much less white editors, don't circulate much in Jimmy's World,” (the name of Cooke’s article) he wrote. Bradlee said that "responsibility for this is uncomplicated," but that there were a number of systemic failures here.

Bradlee’s hard-earned advice about how to avoid such incidents draws deeply not just from the Cooke affair but the tumultuous lessons learned during both the Watergate and Pentagon Paper investigations. He wrote, “beware of stories you want to be true.” 

"On a really big story, find at least one naysayer, and listen to him (or her)," he wrote.

"On a really big story, look for the reporters and editors who have some reservations," he went on to say. 

"And finally, never get discouraged by how easily things can go wrong, how hard it is to find the truth,” he concluded.

Born in 1921, Bradlee emerged from an upper-class Boston background. But he faced early adversities such as the loss of family wealth and more seriously, a polio diagnosis during his teens. But the determination that got him through Harvard and the US Navy during World War II helped shape what many a young reporter later experienced as an intimidating self-confidence thoroughly laced with the language and bravado of onboard life under enemy fire. He was notorious for his use of profanity, even with the likes of then-US Attorney General John Mitchell, whom he once told to back off a subpoena or Bradlee would do something unprintable in a family publication.

Bradlee is credited with turning the Post into a world-renowned newspaper, earning him a rare and singular leadership spot in the annals of modern journalism.

The legacy of Bradlee is that the press's number one responsibility is to speak the truth to power and to be a watchdog over the work of the government, says Beth Knobel, a communication and media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. She has just finished a study of watchdog journalism in the US and says that, since 1991, the Post has published the most watchdog stories, which she attributes to Bradlee’s influence.

“Bradlee's career is a reminder that it can be tough to stand up to powerful politicians, but doing so is the essence of what makes journalism a public service,” Ms. Knobel adds via e-mail.   

"Ben Bradlee knew what to do with freedom of the press, risking both his career and newspaper while gambling that the  Founding Fathers meant exactly what they said,” says Ken Paulson, dean of Middle Tennessee University's College of Mass Communication and president of the First Amendment Center.

Bradlee understood that keeping an eye on people in power, Professor Paulson adds, “is the core mission of journalism."

Journalists and editors today can learn much from his life about tenacity, creativity, leadership, and verve for living, says Len Shyles, professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “He could multi-task, and that is a necessary attribute of any editor wanting to fashion an editorial vision. He was able to relinquish trust to those in his employ whom he assigned to do their job for the greater good of developing accurate important information to the reading public, the citizenry.”

At a time when news consumers are awash in information, journalists who seek the truth through an independent, objective method of reporting are more important than ever in helping citizens make sense of the world says Maria Henson, a 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, a 1994 Nieman Fellow, and associate vice president at Wake Forest University where she serves as editor-at-large for Wake Forest Magazine.

“Ben Bradlee championed the highest ideals of a free press, leading a newsroom that was unafraid to hold government and institutions accountable,” she says via e-mail, adding that no matter the platform — print, broadcast, or digital, “the Bradlee style of reporting that guards against tyranny never goes out of style.”

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