A journalist’s job is to seek the truth. No more, no less. Someone who knew this better than anyone else was long-time executive editor of The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, who died on Oct. 21, 2014 He was the journalist who took down a president, and he never looked back.
Bradlee believed that the truth should be out there for the world to see, not locked away and released when the government said so. His coverage of the Watergate Scandal and publication of the Pentagon papers brought him and his reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the national spotlight. He was also fiercely protective.
In the front page story on the Watergate break-in, Bradlee’s writers claimed that a secret grand jury testimony had established that Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, had control of a secret fund used to finance the Watergate break-in as well as other illegal activities.
There was no grand jury testimony. When Bradlee discovered this, he simply asked his reporters “what happened?” The article sparked a wildfire in the White House, denying what Bradlee had printed.
To combat arguments that his writers had falsified information for their story, Bradlee issued a statement. All he said was, “We stand by our story.”
Bradlee was the editor of The Washington Post from 1965 to 1991. Bradlee expected nothing but perfection from his reporters and would stand by them through anything.
He was a gruff, old-school journalist who was described in a recent Washington Post article as having “a unique restlessness.” The article goes on to say, “Nothing satisfied him fully. He kept raising the bar on everyone—himself included.”
From his first day as editor, he was known to prowl around the newsroom looking for gossip or who had the best story.
He was a man of uncompromising ethics and thirst for the truth. In 1977, The Post was about to publish a story that King Hussein of Jordan was being paid off by the CIA when Bradlee was called into the Oval Office by President Jimmy Carter.
The President urged Bradlee not to publish the story, even though it would not harm national security. Bradley decided to run it anyway and received a personal note from the President, who called it an “irresponsible” story.
Everyone who hopes to work in journalism should look to what Ben Bradlee stood for and why he stood for it. He wanted to speak to truth and for his reporters to back it up with good facts. As long as your facts were solid he believed in you. In a way, he was the perfect editor.
In an interview for The Post in 2012, his wife Sally asked him how he would want to be remembered. His answer is something that every person, not only journalists, should hope for:
“To leave a legacy of honesty and to live a life as close to the truth as I can”