Remembering Ben Bradlee- An editor who stood solidly behind his team
Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30
Dr. Ashok Jahanavi Prasad In my reckoning, the word of a journalist carries far more weight than that of a Cadillac salesman who has ventured into politics and acquired a governmental position.-Ben Bradlee My only encounter with Ben Bradlee took place when he was visiting Columbia University during my time as a senior professor to address a seminar. I was introduced to him during the coffee break when I asked him about his modus operandi while dealing with hostile governmental figures and political stalwarts. For a journalist who had acquired a cult following, he was surprisingly modest and unassuming with his public persona. But we were all aware of the fiercely protective loyalty he extended towards his fellow journalists. He was known to take on the mightiest of the mighty in furtherance of his sole vocation-dissemination of the truth. His subordinates down to the most junior journalist reciprocated that loyalty in similar measure. President Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy with Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Bradlee, White House, Family Living Room.Â Date 29 May 1963 If I had to enumerate three of his most notable moments as an editor, it would have to be his court battle with the state apparatus for publication of the Pentagon papers, his steadfast and never ending support to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein when they started exposing the Watergate scandal and his firm and principled stand when one of his Pulitzer Prize winning reporters viz. Janet Cooke was discovered to have fabricated the story which fetched her the Pulitzer. In the last instance, he felt the only honourable course for him would be to return the Pulitzer. When his newspaper obtained the Pentagon papers which showed the government in extremely poor light , the Assistant Attorney General at the time ,William Rehnquist threatened him and his newspaper if he did not return the documents which were purportedly stolen.Â A prolonged legal battle followed which brought the matter before the US Supreme Court where in a landmark judgement authored by Justice Hugo Black the Court ruled- Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. A footnote here-Rehnquist later on became the US Chief Justice and publicly referred to Bradlee as one of his 'closest friends and perhaps the one person United States can trust completely!' However it was Bradlee's role during the exposure of the Watergate scandal that the posterity would forever be indebted to him for. Two of his junior most reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had stumbled across information which suggested that the presidential staff had been involved in a seedy burglary. Once Bradlee sensed they were onto something big -- that the burglars were employed by Nixon's presidential re-election committee -- he urged them on. Against overwhelming odds and facing enormous pressure, he stood solidly behind his subordinates. Â Only three individuals knew the identity of the Deep Throat, their informer and he extracted an undertaking from Woodward and Bernstein that the name would remain confidential until the time was right. The rest is history. Whatever pressure Ben may have felt from the powers that be in Washington, he made sure his reporters felt secure. As long as a story was solid to the satisfaction of Ben and his editors, he would go with it and accept the consequences.He supported his reporters with a tenacity that made them fearless and it is no accident that so many became authors of influential, bestselling books.-Peter Osnos ,former foreign editor with the Washington Post. President Obama ,while conferring the Presidential Medal of Freedom remarked: "A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better," That to me is the ultimate tribute for a newspaper editor! He shall continue to serve as an emulatory role model for a long long time and it can be safely stated that he brought his vocation which also happened to be his profession to new heights. I am not sure he set out to create a revolution that he ended up creating through his 23 year tenure as an executive editor at the Washington Post. In my reckoning, he is the one figure who inspired more than any other to take up journalism through the last generation not just in the United States but all over the world. I cannot help contrasting Bradlee's support for Bernstein and Woodward with the capitulation that continues to be displayed by our own coterie of editors when it comes to a political story. Bradlee was a journalist through and through who lived a breathed journalism.Â Â Our editors/journalists would do well to emulate his commitment to his profession and the courage of conviction it bestowed. Perhaps some day in near future we may be able to state with confidence that journalists indeed on the whole carry more credibility than the politicians-as Bradlee had indicated to myself. I cannot help contrasting Bradlee's support for Bernstein and Woodward with the capitulation that continues to be displayed by our own coterie of editors when it comes to a political story. Bradlee was a journalist through and through who lived a breathed journalism. Our editors/journalists would do well to emulate his commitment to his profession and the courage of conviction it bestowed. Perhaps some day in near future we may be able to state with confidence that journalists indeed on the whole carry more credibility than the politicians-as Bradlee had indicated to myself. It is anybody's guess how the Bofors affair may have turned out had Bradlee been at the helm of affairs. Meanwhile I pay fullsome tribute to this giant who left this world three days ago with a note of astonishment that his swan song seemingly did not interest the Fourth Estate in India the way it should have.
Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.