On Ben Bradlee

21 Oct

Bradlee and Woodward. It’s the photo everyone seems to be using. It’s a good photo.

I never met him. I’m not sure I know anyone who did (but it wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out I do).

But there’s no denying his influence in my career choice.

As most of you know, I’ve come to journalism a bit late – it was the notorious career change at age 30. Notorious because everyone changes their career, or so we’re told, not because it’s been a bad change.

It’s been the best change – but again, most of you know that.

So much of my interest in being a journalist goes back to Watergate. I wasn’t alive for it, obviously, but All the President’s Men has been one of my favourite movies since the day I first watched it. I don’t know when that was – high school? – but it’s from well before I even had an inkling that journalism might be the thing. It deals in issues that have always been important to me: about what’s right, about informing readers, about contributing to the theatre of ideas, about speaking difficult truths.

Over the years, I’ve added to my understanding of the affair. But I always find myself drawn back to Jason Robards’ masterful and well-regarded portrayal of Bradlee.

He’s the guy steering the ship. He’s the guy who believes in his young guys. He’s the guy doing the teaching, about what journalism must be and how it must work. Get it right. Be aggressive. Tell stories. Sloppy isn’t just unacceptable, it’s dangerous. Even in today’s world of ‘get-it-done-now’ journalism, these are essential. In many ways, I find myself hearing these ideals bubbling back into importance. Fast is important. First still counts. But getting it right still reigns supreme.

With that in mind – three things I’ve read about Bradlee tonight. The first is the Washington Post obituary. It paints a picture of a very driven man, who made friends with powerful people but who also pressed his reporters to do good work. He held strong principles – and he believed they were important for America.

Second is a note from former Washington Post staffer Ezra Klein, now editor-in-chief of Vox.com. Bradlee was long retired when Klein started at the Post in 2009, but Bradlee was still about. He also seeped through the institution – a good thing, Klein suggests in his piece, called “What is was like to meet Ben Bradlee.”

Last is a fun list from Vanity Fair, written two years ago, of various barbs, zingers and other correspondence from and about the desk of Bradlee. It’s witty and instructive: I’ll leave you with the final entry, from a 1973 letter:

As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences. The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free.

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