Ben Bradlee Deserves His Viking Funeral (*Asterisk Goes Here)

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Contemporary Commentary
Tags: , , , , ,

Ben Bradlee deserves his viking funeral.  The ship should make three passes of journalistic valhalla.  Long shall his shield shine from high in the hall of heroes.  He was one of the greats.

But he was not flawless and if he did indeed set some high water marks, he also left some nasty looking rings as the bathtub of American journalism drained over the years into today’s murky puddle.  Here are the asterisks on a distinguished career.

* Watergate cut two ways and journalism has been sliding down that blade for four decades, largely to its loss.  The now famous “two source” rule prior to Watergate was the lame excuse of checkout lane tabloids. Bradlee added it to the mainstream media canons of ethical practice.  Did the ends justify the means in Watergate?  I believe it did, but the resulting wide use of sources to allege serious wrong-doing sure has come back to bite readers and journalists in the back on hundreds of occasions since then.

Too often, “Watergate” changed investigative reporting form a meticulous marshaling of facts to a game of access to sources. And the goal too often became not an investigation of outright corrupt practices but the search for scandal — with political decapitation as the end game.

The end result is the casual “some say” journalism practiced on cable news today and reporting from false sources that helped lead us to war in Iraq.  Major factors in the decline and failure of journalism can be traced back to Watergate — and the overuse of anonymous sources.  Its techniques ought to have been a one-hit wonder.  Instead, they became templates.

*Bradlee undermined robust, factual, meticulously documented “Chicago style” investigative reporting when he torpedoed the “Mirage Tavern” Pulitzer for the Chicago Sun Times in the 1970’s — one of the great unrecognized stories in American journalism.  The reporters there had pulled off an imaginative and ambitious “sting” — opening a bar and grill and then recording every solicited bribe from every city employee and policeman.  Bradlee opposed the Pulitzer, arguing that journalists cannot lie to get a story.

And of course they can’t.  What he missed — or chose to miss — is that the Sun Times reporters didn’t lie.  They opened a real bar.  They lied about nothing.  It was brilliant and imaginative reporting about the real world, and its reporting was far more careful than Woodward and Bernstein’s and far more ethical than “Jimmygate” — Bradlee’s embarrassing Pulitzer gaff.

* While Bradlee had a carefully cultivated river boat gambler charisma, he was far more of the Washington social salon than salt of the earth saloon.  He invited to dinner the very folks who were being covered by his reporters in the capitol and maintained an ambitious social calendar.   This is the turf of publishers, not editors, and Bradlee’s crossing the line gave the okay for today’s obscene Beltway scene where journalists hob nob with “sources” and movie stars at the National Press Club banquet. If Washington seems impervious to outside sources and influences, if it all seems a comfortably maintained atmosphere, Bradlee helped build that bio-dome.  The idea that this type of socialization leads to good sources and access is a weak justification for lazy reporting.  It substitutes gossip for shoe leather reporting and real news.

His accolades of course outweigh the asterisks.  They are well represented elsewhere and a part of our national folklore.  And ought to be.  But the asterisks are real and need to be noted.

  1. Jim Panyard says:

    EXCELLENT, Robert. EXCELLENT. Particularly liked the description of the Slippery Slope of Watergate journalism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. says:

    well done…


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