Ben Bradlee and the Spirit of Public Service Media

1413952926648.cached 777There 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.

The news ombudsmen in the United States need greater recognition and support, as do programs such as On The Media.

Opinion Driven News and the Need for Public Service Media

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A new report from the Pew Research Journalism Project on the different sources of news and information accessed by liberals and conservatives which simply strengthen the already dismal state of political polarization in this country is a strong argument for a much more robust public service media sector. A good summary of the report is available in this NiemanLab article.

Unfortunately, few citizens are aware of the profound differences between the scope and available resources of commercially driven and public service media when it comes to exploring important subjects, providing alternative points of view, checking facts, providing important contextual information, correcting mistakes, being open to criticism and reaching a national audience.

A few for-profit journalism enterprises make a concerted effort to meet these public interest standards, but most do not. As developed by the first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, public service broadcasting should inform, educate and entertain in that order of priority. It should also be available to all citizens with a goal to and reach as many as possible. Given the dire state of our news media outlined in Robert Kaiser’s essay and this new Pew study, there is an urgent need for more debate and discussion why the concepts associated with public service media are so little understood in America.

A good place to start is this recent opinion essay in Harper’s by Eugenia Williamson analyzing why PBS has become such a marginal force in the American media landscape. Though the article is available only to Harper’s subscribers, a good summary of what it contains, and the criticism it sparked, is well covered by PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler. That PBS has an ombudsman responding thoughtfully to the concerns of viewers, something very few are aware of, in itself underscores the need for a more robust public media system.

Critical Mission: Finding A Way To Save The News

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In a recent Brookings essay, The Bad News About the News, veteran Washington Post reporter and editor Robert Kaiser provides a thoughtful analysis regarding the steady collapse of the economic model that had long sustained newspaper  journalism, with serious consequences for our democracy.  Unfortunately, the people who ran the best newspapers in the days when they made plenty of money completely misjudged the transformation internet based digital media would have on the sources of revenue they relied on. Kaiser is hopeful a new generation of digital media entrepeneurs will pay more attention to finding innovative ways to support engaging, accountability journalism vital to a functioning democracy. His essay and this initial response by Jonathan Rauch need to be read and widely discussed.