Ben Bradlee: Celebrating a legend

Contemporary American history is often casually divided into chunks easy to comprehend. There was the Jazz Age that peaked in the Roaring 1920s, immortalised by F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby. Then came the Depression Era and the War Years, followed by Vietnam and the anti-war movement of the late 1960s that fuelled the angst of music legends like Bob Dylan, Richie Havens and Joan Baez.

Sandwiched between Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939 and September 2001, when terrorists smashed hijacked planes into the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center, must surely be the golden age of journalism.

It was a time newsrooms were noisy dwellings as reporters worked on typewriters amid the ceaseless clatter of the teleprinter or ticker-tape. Journalists pumped sources over leisurely, liquid lunches and, without the pressure of filing online, returned to smoke-filled offices where, in the language of the alpha male, they banged out stories to fixed deadlines. Casual profanity was common.

In America, few dominated this age more than Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, who once cancelled the appointment of a nearly hired reporter because he judged the fellow to be not man enough - "they did not clang when he walked", he said, referring to a part of the male anatomy seldom in public view.

Last week, when the elegant Mr Bradlee died in his Washington home at age 93, American media celebrated his life with a mixture of awe at his exploits and wistfulness for a time long passed. For not only did he embody an era when the gladiators of the trade did not succumb to the seduction of access to power, the masts they led were profitable and powerful as well. Today's leaders, increasingly, know they only have to reach for their Twitter handle or Facebook page to instantly communicate with the people, without the mediation of newspapers or television.

Entering journalism after Harvard University and a short career in the United States Navy, where he served on a destroyer in the Pacific theatre during World War II, Mr Bradlee would have been assured his place in American journalism for a variety of reasons - including his friendship with John F. Kennedy and the access that gave him to Camelot, as the Kennedy White House was known.

Indeed, so tight was he with JFK, his former Georgetown neighbour and Harvard contemporary, that the president leaked to his friend at a dance party that captured American U-2 pilot Gary Powers was to be freed soon in exchange for a Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel. That enabled The Washington Post to change its front-page lead in the middle of its print run for the scoop.

More than all this, though, the stuff that built the Bradlee legend centred around two events - the successful fight in the US Supreme Court to publish the true, secret history of the Vietnam War, called the Pentagon Papers, and the exposure - and ousting in 1974 - of President Richard Nixon for covering up the break-in and burglary of the Democratic Party campaign offices in the Watergate complex two years earlier.

In the latter, Mr Bradlee was not directly involved in the reporting. But two young writers on the Post staff - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - came to him with the story and he recognised its potential early on, backing the pair with resources and encouragement while standing tough against an Establishment desperate to cover up the crime. His words to the Post crew: "Just get it right."

The White House initially dismissed the break-in as a "third-rate burglary" and most newspapers swallowed that line. But, reel by reel, as Mr Woodward and Mr Bernstein dug deeper, Mr Nixon's dirty dealings of espionage and wire taps and slush funds came to light.

Along the way, the two reporters got some useful, whispered tips to crack the cover-up - follow the trail of secret campaign cash.

In the 1976 movie version of the book All The President's Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, the line would be written as "follow the money" - creating a journalism catch-phrase that exists to this day and establishing "investigative journalism" as a worthy pursuit for the brightest emerging from universities.

In the end, thanks to the Post team, nearly 50 people would be sent to prison for Watergate, the most notable being White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman. Mr Nixon resigned, and escaped prison only because of a presidential pardon from his successor, Mr Gerald Ford.

For all his great achievements, at least one major embarrassment would occur during Mr Bradlee's tenure and some think it happened because a young reporter felt the need to catch his unsparing eye.

In September 1980, Janet Cooke, who had lied her way to a reporter's job at the Post, published Jimmy's World, the feature story of an eight-year-old heroin addict, his habit supplied by his mother's live-in boyfriend. In the startling description that one cannot forget to this day, Cooke wrote of the African-American child: "The needle slides into the boy's soft skin like a straw pushed into the centre of a freshly baked cake."

Some red flags were quickly raised about the report by the city administration, but the paper stood by the story, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. In April the following year, two days after the prize was announced, the Post admitted the story was a hoax and returned the Pulitzer.

Every great career has significant forks in the road, and in the thrice-married Mr Bradlee's case, there were two. The first was his move, as Newsweek bureau chief in Washington, to engineer the magazine's sale to Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, in 1962.

A grateful Mr Graham would later bestow enough company stock on Mr Bradlee to keep him in comfort for the rest of his life.

The other was Mr Graham's suicide the following year, at age 48, that left the Post in the hands of his young widow, Katherine.

The untested Mrs Graham soon turned to Mr Bradlee, appointing him managing editor in 1965 and executive editor in 1968, a position he would hold until he retired in 1991. It was her resolute backing that helped Mr Bradlee win the Post its spurs, and build it into a repository of talent, known worldwide for its journalism, and the access it enjoyed.

"Ben was hiring great writers, great reporters," Mr Bernstein recalled last week, of the first months of Mr Bradlee's reign. "I said I wanted to work here."

Mr Bradlee doubled the Post's staff, and circulation soared. Under him, the Post began to enjoy a lofty pulpit, sharing a pedestal with The New York Times as its reputation sparkled around the globe, even as its news bureaus sprouted in major capitals. He was also the first editor of a major newspaper to appoint an ombudsman to critique his own paper.

Paying tribute, the Post said Mr Bradlee's tactics were simple: "'Hire people smarter than you are and encourage them to bloom.' His energy and his mystique were infectious."

The Bradlee charisma would endure even after he had stepped down, to be waved upstairs to a largely ceremonial position as a vice-president at large. Even so, when he walked past the newsroom, "faces turned towards him - were pulled in his direction - much as a field of flowers turns towards the sun," Mr David von Drehle, the first Post reporter to be hired after Mr Bradlee's departure, wrote of him last week.

Sadly, the Washington Post is no longer what it used to be. Neither is journalism.

For some time, as the US publishing industry reeled under the onslaught of the digital age, the Post had been making money not on its publishing business but its college-coaching service, Kaplan. In August last year, 80 years after it came into their hands via a public auction, the Grahams sold the Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for US$250 million (S$319 million).

Writing in The New York Times last week, Mr David Carr, a former editor of the Washington City Paper, summed up the Bradlee phenomenon in a way that most in the trade would agree with: "He would have been a terrible newspaperman in the current context - buyouts, reduced print schedules, timidity about offending advertisers - but he was a perfect one for his time."

This article was first published on Oct 26, 2014.
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