Thursday, October 23, 2014

Ben Bradlee 1921 - 2014

Benjamin C. Bradlee, Vice-President at Large, of The Washington Post.

Legendary Ben Bradlee, a legend in his own time, passed away October 21, 2014.  He is being remembered as the most charismatic and luminescent journalist of his time.  He believed that journalism and its gate-keeper role was essential to ensuring democracy and a democratic nation.  With his death, a golden era of journalism has passed.

At the time of his death he was vice-president at large of The Washington Post, his beloved newspaper that he came to in 1965 as a news editor.  His star rose to the position of executive editor of the Post from 1968-1991.  

He believed in and supported aggressive but meticulous reporting from all his reporters.  He also supported the use of 'anonymous sources'.  In fact, Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein were to only ones who knew the identity of "Deep Throat," the anonymous source during the Watergate reporting. Katharine Graham, the Post publisher, never knew his identity.

Bradlee and Katharine Graham, publisher of the Post, held stewardship over the paper during two of the most defining moments in the paper's history - the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal.  It was during this time that Bradlee rose to national prominence.

In 1971, Bradlee and Graham were issued subpoenas by the Nixon administration to appear in federal court to quash the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which told the truth about the Viet Nam War that Nixon did not want to come out.

The case went on to the Supreme Court which ruled that The Washington Post, along with The New York Times, could print the Pentagon Papers. Thus, Bradlee and Graham scored a victory for freedom of the press.

Just about a year later Bradlee and the Post were embroiled in the Watergate scandal. Bradlee staunchly supported and backed his two young, green news reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as they went on to report the break in of the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Headquarters.  They were able to connect the break in to the White House and then to Nixon himself.  They simply followed the money and brought down a president. Nixon resigned as President of the U.S. in disgrace on August 9, 1974 and Vice-President Gerald Ford became President of the United States.

Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward, reporters of the Watergate scandal, in the Post newsroom. 

Woodward and Bernstein's reporting earned them the Pulitzer Prize in journalism.  In fact, under Bradlee's tenure, the Post won a total of seventeen Pulitzer Prizes.

The only dark spot on Bradlee's career was the 1981 Janet Cooke scandal.  Janet Cooke, a feature writer for the Post, wrote the story "Jimmy's World," in which she chronicled the life and times of Jimmy, an eight-year-old heroin addict, living on the mean streets of Washington, DC.  

Bradlee was a staunch supporter of Cooke and her story and published it on the front page of the Post.  Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting, but it was later discovered that she had invented and made up the entire story. Jimmy, the eight-year-old heroin addict, had never existed.  Bradlee had to see that the Pulitzer Prize was returned and, of course, he fired Cooke. It was the one dark moment in an otherwise illustrious career.

Under his tenure, Bradlee turned the Post into one of the most important newspapers in the country and nearly doubled its circulation and number of newsroom reporters.

Before his tenure at the Post,  Bradlee was managing editor of the Boston Globe. He went to Washington D.C. in the early 1960's as Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine.  It was during these early years in Washington that Bradlee became good friends with JFK and he and his wife and the Kennedy's often socialized together.

Bradlee was married three times throughout his life, and his present wife is Sally Quinn, news reporter and columnist for the Post, whom he married in 1978.  He also leaves children from his present and previous marriages.

The world of journalism was forever changed and made better by the fortitude, determination, perseverance, effervescence,  and charisma of Ben Bradlee. He was larger than life and he will always be remembered as a shining force in the journalism profession.

Bradlee is given the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 2013.

Copyright (c)  2014  Suzannah Wolf Walker   all rights reserved