As the Charleton Tribunal looks forward to its modules dealing with the work of journalists ALLAN PROSSER recalls the editor whose decision-making influenced newsrooms across the world.
THE Tom Hanks portrayal of the legendary editor Ben Bradlee doing the rounds of Ireland’s cinemas just now provides an insight into a personality whose values helped to define modern journalism and whose impact can be felt right through to 2018 as the Charleton Tribunal prepares to scrutinise the role and responsibilities of journalists this month.
Bradlee was the locus of a number of major world stories which redounded to his credit and one more shameful episode which can be seen as the progenitor of “fake news”.
Even in his management of the repercussions of that for his newspaper, Bradlee set a template for an apologia when editors are required to explain their actions and those of their staff.
The Steven Spielberg movie The Post offers an account of the legal battle over the Pentagon Papers, the first great whistleblowing exercise of modern times, when thousands of details of the covert escalation of US involvement in Indochina into a full-scale war in Vietnam were leaked, firstly to the New York Times and latterly to the Washington Post provoking rage and belligerence from the White House, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Piquancy and risk were added to the Post’s 1971 decision to publish by the coincidental timing of a public offering of shares in the company to finance the ambitious expansion plans of Bradlee and his publisher Katharine Graham. Almost to a person the corporate advisers and the lawyers opposed running the story because of a potential adverse impact on the share price.
Graham, in one of the bravest decisions in proprietorial history, backed Bradlee, establishing the Washington Post, hitherto regarded for many years as a stolid, poor quality, regional title as a world player and as champion of the US First Amendment and the freedom of the press.
The victory still stirs folk memories among journalists of a certain age. A column in the Mail on Sunday lamented: “The days when newspapers had that sort of concentrated power to defy authority are coming to an end. The Internet, all too easily censored and manipulated is taking over. Without strong newspapers, all the forces of liberty and law are weaker. Is it nostalgia to wish their decline hadn’t happened?” All editors love a follow-up, and Bradlee got his almost immediately in 1972 with Watergate, the “third-rate burglary” (copyright Ron Ziegler, White House press secretary) at the Democratic headquarters that led to an American constitutional crisis and the resignation ahead of potential impeachment of Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, in 1974.
Bradlee was almost congenitally opposed to the Nixon machine and its way of doing business. He and his second wife Toni were close Georgetown associates of Jack and Jackie Kennedy at the height of the “Camelot” era and it was this relationship that earned him a famous scoop when the president told him exclusively that the U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers had been exchanged for Soviet master spy “Rudolf Abel” at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, an episode dramatised in another Spielberg/Tom Hanks vehicle, the 2015 film Bridge of Spies.
Bradlee was editing Newsweek in 1962, and Kennedy told him that he hoped his disclosure had been made in time for him to change his cover story. It hadn’t, but he was able to dictate the story over to its sister title, the Washington Post.
Watergate was characterised by Bradlee’s willingness to trust his, predominantly young, cadre of reporters and their contacts, the most famous of which was Deep Throat, named after a soft porn movie of the period. Deep Throat was revealed decades later to be Mark Felt, an FBI associate director.
Another important technique used by the editorial investigators of Watergate was the principle of double confirmation — storylines had to be put to a minimum of two sources for affirmation prior to publication, a demand rarely relaxed by Bradlee at the height of the controversy.
Not everyone was convinced by the Watergate allegations. Kay Graham, ultimately so resolute over the Pentagon Papers, was concerned by the isolation of the Post in its pursuit of Nixon, and had good reason to worry. Subsequent transcripts of Oval Office conversations showed that Nixon and his inner circle were determined to obstruct licence renewals for the Post’s important TV and radio stations. Graham said to Bradlee: “If this story is so important, as you say it is, why is it that we are the only paper covering it?” Ultimately Bradlee’s instinct paid dividends. Years later he said in a TV interview: “If you were told — any editor of The Washington Post since the beginning of time — there was going to be a story that 40 people would go to jail and the president of the United States would resign, you’d say, ‘Thank you, Lord’.” Watergate also brought the gruff Jason Robards to the first screen portrayal of Bradlee in the 1976 film of All The President’s Men, based on the Bob Woodward/Carl Bernstein book.
In a brilliant hat-tip to the testosterone-driven, adrenaline-filled, overwhelmingly male, profane, smoke-laden atmosphere of a 70s newsroom Robards protested that he couldn’t possibly play the editor.
“He doesn’t do anything” he said.
“He just says ‘What’s the f***ing story. Where’s my f***ing story. Get me my f***ing story’.”
BRADLEE wore his reputation for salty and robust language lightly, and was known to address some complaining readers as “Dear Asshole”.
In 1976 he was at the height of his powers. But within five years the Post became embroiled in an embarrassing episode about a fabricated story which won the Pulitzer Prize.
Reporter Janet Cooke invented an eight-year-old heroin addict for a news feature called “Jimmy’s World” which caused major political fallout in the city. Bradlee ordered a “full disclosure” investigation to reveal the truth; Cooke was sacked and the Pulitzer returned. Loyalty to reporters on this occasion had let him down but the Post explained its shortcomings in an 18,000-word article, starting on page one, written by the newspaper’s ombudsman.
Bradlee continued as editor until 1991 and continued as a vice-president of the company — now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — dying in 2014 aged 93. He railed until his final days about the growth of lies and deceit in the public sphere.
This quote is as good an epitaph as any: “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.”