R.I.P., Ben Bradlee, Although a Paper Is Not a ‘Public Trust’

As you have no doubt seen, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee has died at the age of 93. Bradlee, who led the Post’s newsroom from 1965 until 1991, was a towering figure in the history of 20th-century journalism, and his contributions included overseeing coverage of Watergate and the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as well as what may have been his most lasting contribution — the introduction of the Post’s widely imitated (and often equaled or surpassed) “Style” section.

My impression of Bradlee is formed almost entirely by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men, which I believe is second only to His Girl Friday among great journalism movies. I have no particular insights on Bradlee, and while many people my age credit President’s Men with inspiring them to go into journalism, for me the reporting touchstone was (and remains) Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The Post has a fine obituary and Howard Kurtz has a good retrospective. (Interestingly, Kurtz counts indifference to suburban reporting as one of Bradlee’s vices, though in my experience — reading the Post more than 20 years after Bradlee’s departure — the paper’s two brightest editorial points are that its Virginia coverage is pretty good and its Redskins coverage is the best treatment of a local team by any paper in the country.)

President Obama Awards Presidential Medal Of Freedom; November 20, 2013 Win McNamee, Getty Images

President Obama weighed in on Bradlee’s death Tuesday night, and it’s a perfectly fine presidential statement. (I will not quibble at these proceedings over the self-dealing in Obama’s praising a paper so far to the left it actually made me say out loud, “Jesus Christ, I thought the L.A. Times was full of commies” when I got here a few years back.)

For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession – it was a public good vital to our democracy.  A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told – stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better.  The standard he set – a standard for honest, objective, meticulous reporting – encouraged so many others to enter the profession.  And that standard is why, last year, I was proud to honor Ben with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Today, we offer our thoughts and prayers to Ben’s family, and all who were fortunate to share in what truly was a good life.

Every time I hear the phrase “public trust” or “public good” used in reference to newspapers, I rip up one of those environmentally incorrect plastic bags our excellent delivery lady puts the papers in. Newspapers in free societies are not, and never have been, public trusts. They are for-profit enterprises, and the use of the phrase “public good” around political corridors and publishers’ offices (even in today’s newsrooms, reporters are still realistic enough to avoid that kind of palaver) is always cover for either 1) pushing an obvious political agenda; 2) pleading for a public or private bailout of a dying medium (one which has already spent more than a century agitating to rig local and federal laws in its own favor); or 3) refusing to publish content that people actually want to read. I never met Bradlee, and I suspect this grandiose notion of the news media probably passed through his head a time or two. But he clearly had a strong sense of a good story, which will always be the most important thing in news.

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