How Ben Bradlee transformed The Washington Post

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November 3, 2014 by newsgetting

Benjamin C. Bradlee, who died last Tuesday at the age of 93, was the architect and builder of the modern Washington Post. His conviction that even the most powerful should be held to a standard of truth-telling inspired journalists well beyond The Post. His exuberance at work and in life served as a model well beyond journalism.
As managing editor and then executive editor from 1965 to 1991, Mr. Bradlee liked to roam the sprawling newsroom. Once he came up to a young journalist on the National staff, hired just months before, whose story was on Page One that day. Mr. Bradlee jabbed a finger at the front-page story. “Nothing like this!” he said, with a broad, knowing smile.
There was nothing like working for him, either. His enthusiasm was infectious. When Mr. Bradlee stopped to ask what was going on, reporters eagerly shared a tantalizing idea or tip. “Worth a phone call,” Mr. Bradlee often replied, and he needed say no more. His newsroom crackled with the energy of a modern startup. A certain “creative tension” was the reality, a competition among reporters and editors to win his approval. Mr. Bradlee loved the chase and the thrill of discovery.
Mr. Bradlee called reporters “the best lie detectors,” and nothing mattered more to him than exposing the truth, even if it took a long time. In his own account, the Vietnam War and then Watergate marked a crisis of confidence in American society, brought on by leaders who did not level with the people. In the Pentagon Papers, excerpts of which he published despite government threats, Mr. Bradlee saw proof that the American people had not been told the truth about decisions made to escalate the war. Then came Watergate and his determination to find out what really happened. He was outraged at President Nixon’s behavior. Nixon “lied over and over again with intent to deceive the American public and thereby save his ass from the consequences of his crimes,” Mr. Bradlee wrote in his memoir. The newspaper won global recognition for coverage that led to the president’s resignation, but the lesson for journalists was in Mr. Bradlee’s fusion of doggedness, fearlessness and professionalism.
His management could be erratic, and he made mistakes, but Mr. Bradlee never tired of looking for the finest talent, both established and upcoming. Early on he lured David S. Broder from the New York Times and Haynes Johnson from the Washington Evening Star. They helped define the era. “The more we found, the hungrier we got,” he recalled. He invented the Style section, capturing in the newspaper the magic of the “New Journalism” then popular in magazines — provocative, literary, probing, sassy and swashbuckling. He was impatient with mediocrity and flackery. He relished stylish writing and reporters who were fast off the mark.
What Mr. Bradlee built at The Post could not have been achieved without the support of the Graham family, which invested generously in his ambitions and courageously stood behind his editorial decisions. Katharine Graham named Mr. Bradlee managing editor in 1965, and their partnership and shared vision spanned a generation of growth in the newspaper’s stature and profitability. Donald E. Graham, who did so much to lead the newspaper in the next generation, never forgot Mr. Bradlee’s contribution. As he said at his retirement in 1991, “It’s Bradlee’s paper.”

By The Washington Post Editorial Board

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