There have been a wealth of remembrances and anecdotes in the media reflecting on the passing of Ben Bradlee, the legendary Executive Editor of the Washington Post. A major theme has been Bradlee’s admirable commitment to accountability journalism, even when it applies to him and the reporters and editors of the Post, well captured in these comments by two of his colleagues, Carl Bernstein and Robert McCartney.
Bernstein of Watergate reknown:
“He pulled off being Ben because he wasn’t afraid of presidents, of polio, of political correctness, of publishing the Pentagon Papers, of possible retribution . . ., of going off to war in the Pacific, of making mistakes. . . . We live now in an era when too many of us run afraid. . . . The dominant political and media cultures [are] too often geared to the lowest common denominator: Make noise, get eyeballs . . . manufacture as much controversy as can be ginned up. Ben lived and worked in an ungerrymandered world. He lived off the main road. There was no safe line except the truth.”
McCartney who writes a column for the Post Metro section:
“As others have noted, Bradlee applied the same aggressive scrutiny to himself and The Post when necessary. When the paper learned that one of its reporters had fabricated a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, Bradlee ordered a thorough, independent investigation in which his own leadership came off none too well.
Bradlee hired me a year after the scandal broke. Before I applied, I carefully read the report about what happened. I thought at the time, ‘They really screwed this up, but at least they had the guts to lay it out for all to see.’
As we bid Bradlee adieu, the important question to ask is whether that commitment to accountability will survive the current economic crisis afflicting the news media.”
McCartney’s full column is worth reading carefully for a sense of the need for the journalistic values Ben Bradlee espoused and practiced which are sadly diminishing in the new digital age of journalism.
As the business model that sustained Bradlee and the Post continues to collapse, the need to find new ways to support independent, accountable journalism is of critical importance. Bradlee’s devotion to facing unpleasant truths, whether in politics, government or his own newsroom, calls for a serious reassessment of the role of public service media in America.
Few people are aware of Bradlee’s commitment to having an independent ombudsman on staff at the Post which he discussed in an interview with Brian Lamb on CSPAN in 1991 (begins at 47:00). His first ombudsman was hired in 1970 at a cost of about $100,000 a year which the Ford Foundation was unwilling to help underwrite. Very few newspapers or media organizations, then and now, are willing to provide their news consumers with an ombudsman, something Bradlee rightly regarded as essential for holding journalists accountable to the public.