It's been just 24 hours since journalism's Ben Bradlee -- one of the handful of folks in our lifetime you wouldn't feel awkward describing as a "legend" -- passed away at the age of 93, and the streaming torrent of obituaries, tributes and first-person remembrances continues to flood the Internet. Actually, it's safe to assume that a fair number of folks who are under the age of 40 and who aren't in the media business don't even know who Bradlee was -- he retired as executive editor as the Washington Post in 1991...not only before wide use of the Web but before hardly anyone outside of Arkansas had heard of Bill or Hillary Clinton. In other words, a long time ago.
But for us folks of a certain age, Bradlee is a perfect storm of remembrance -- inextricably linked to one of the biggest stories of modern times (Watergate), played in an Oscar-winning role (by Jason Robards) in "all The President's Men," confidant to a glamorous president (JFK) and taker-down of a crooked one (Nixon), and an icon of the glory years of a now faded industry (newspapers). For the Beltway insiders who populate cable shows like MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Bradlee's passing was a kind of a cultural Pearl Harbor-type event.
In a way, I thought the obituary outpouring underscored several long-held beliefs about newspapers and the people who run them. In more than 30 years in the business, I've worked under a relatively small numbers of top editors (less than a dozen) and while their styles varied dramatically, from the gruff and the profane to the surprisingly low-key, each shared one thing: They conveyed something of an air of mystery to their underlings. Everywhere I've worked, the rank-and-file reporters knew the top editor worked hard, but no one really knew what the heck he (and unfortunately, it's always been a "he") did all day. The Bradlee remembrances are more of the same -- leaving his office a couple of times a day to walk across the newsroom, inspiring and sometimes frightening his lowly minions, then disappearing into a glass office again to do God knows what. It was no surprise that in the breaking news reports last night, I saw more clips of Jason Robards playing Bradlee than I saw of Bradlee.
In fact, while the sadness for Bradlee and his loved ones is sincere and heartfelt, a lot of the grief that comes through is really for a different loss: The death of newspapers, and the end of a time when a handful of crusty gatekeepers like Bradlee and his contemporary Walter Cronkite at CBS, and a handful of others, controlled the flow of important national information. The tales of Bradlee's glory days in the Washington Post newsroom are tales of a charismatic man, but they're also stories about a lost era of unlimited expense accounts, when little mattered in the news cycle beyond tomorrow's Page 1, and when editors interviewed up-and-coming young reporters instead of firing frightened old ones. To most journalists over 50, and I know a lot of these, the looming death of newspapers is every bit as anxiety-inducing -- and as mysterious -- as our own deaths, and I felt that chilly grip in reading about Bradlee's passing.
But here's the thing. While some of the Bradlee essays were outstanding -- the crisp writing of David Carr and the insights of Charlie Pierce really stood out -- a lot of the pieces put an accidental, ironic exclamation point on the passing of journalism's 20th Century glory days -- by showing off some of the worst habits of 21st Century writing. Far too many of the pieces were lazy, hitting simplistic, pre-determined narratives in ways that were sloppy at best and inaccurate at worst.
The notion that Bradlee was THE GUY man who brought down Richard Nixon appeared frequently, and surely must have been a surprise to the heirs of Judge John J. Sirica, the hard-charging jurist who really ended the White House cover-up, or the Senate and House investigators and prosecutors and so many others who also exposed the facts of Watergate but who weren't played by Jason Robards in a Hollywood movie. (Extreme example: The Guardian, in this piece otherwise larded with British skepticism about Bradlee and his motives, said flatly in the headline that he "brought about the resignation of Nixon.")
Other articles hailed Bradlee as a business genius because the Post's profits soared during his tenure -- but that happened everywhere as afternoon papers shuttered and the surviving monopoly papers raked in ad dollars (in D.C., it was the 1981 closing of the rival Washington Star that made Bradlee's Post a cash cow). Making money was something Bradlee shared with a plethora of long-forgotten editors of the 1980s, from Mobile to Kalamazoo.
But the obituaries did all get this right: Bradlee staked his claim to greatness on two big decisions made within roughly a year of each other: Publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 in the face of stern opposition from the viciously vindictive Nixon White House, and then pursuing the Watergate story on the front page throughout 1972 and into 1973 when most other news outlets (except for Cronkite's CBS) had bought into the administration spin of "a third-rate burglary." These were courageous choices, and while history has proven them correct, they were difficult things to do at the time.
But reading this week's coverage, I never got a sense of why he did it. Bradlee's early bio -- including a strange stint in the 1950s as an overseas peddler of U.S. propaganda, which meant playing footsie with the CIA, and then his close ties to Kennedy -- doesn't predict his later reputation as a fearless questioner of authority. Did the lies of the Vietnam era shake his faith in the government, or was his role in the Pentagon Papers and Watergate merely helping one powerful faction in Washington even as it challenged another? I'm not really sure -- and I think that Bradlee, the hard-boiled editor -- would have taken his red pencil to the margin of these paragraphs, asking for more information.
I'm also struggling with the fact that Bradlee led the Post for 17 more years after Nixon resigned -- and his long-term impact on the Post and on American journalism seems a little cloudy. Only a few of the obituaries mentioned the true innovation of Bradlee as a newsroom manager -- something called "creative tension" that pitted Post reporters against each other on the same story, in a state of constant pressure and heart-attack-level anxiety. That approach undoubtedly created some scoops, but it also drove some good people out of the news business. And it fostered the atmosphere that infamously caused a reporter named Janet Cooke to fabricate a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict that didn't exist.
While every single Bradlee remembrance stresses Bradlee's decision to go after Nixon on Watergate, only Esquire's Pierce, of the pieces that I've read, mention the editor's stunning admission that the Post consciously took its foot off the gas on Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal, afraid of what people might think of taking down a second Republican president. Even though the constitutional affronts of the Reagan scandal were arguably as bad as Watergate. (And even though in 2014, the canonization of Reagan arguably has a much more negative impact on the contemporary body politic than the long-ago taking down of Nixon.) By the time Bradlee retired in 1991, the weaponry of investigative journalism had ossified into something that resembled ia strange quasi-religion. Bradlee's successor at the Post, Leonard Downie, famously thought it was a sign of political bias if he cast a vote.
I can't tell whether it's a credit to Bradlee's brilliance or his failings that after he left the Post, the place kind of fell apart. A different Hollywood movie, just out, called "Kill the Messenger," describes the Post's shameful role in 1996 in working to take down the heroic reporting of the late Gary Webb on the CIA, crack and the Contras in Nicaragua. An even lower point was in the early 2000s when its editorial page couldn't do enough to push the administration's tainted story line on Iraq and several reporters -- probably unwittingly -- passed along a government fairy tale of wartime heroism involving a female soldier named Jessica Lynch. (It is only recently, under editor Marty Barron, that the ship of Post journalism has been mostly righted. Although there was still this.)
The thing that most comes across, and for which Bradlee's life is rightly celebrated, is that he was a gruff and stylish boss who wanted his reporters to get the story first, and get the story right. In fact, it's not hard to imagine him reading what's been written about his life so far, jamming about two-thirds of the stories on a large metal spike, spewing out a stream of World War II-grade expletives...and demanding a lot more reporting.