(Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
The thing about mourning the loss of Ben Bradlee is that it’s so much more complicated than remembering a single life. In the case of Bradlee, our grief shouldn’t be for the man himself, since he lived to the age of 93 and by all accounts spent every moment of that time grabbing the world by the balls and squeezing hard. What our grief should be for is what Ben Bradlee represented, the breed of ferociously fearless and eminently ethical journalist of which he may very well be the last. What Bradlee brought to journalism wasn’t simply a dedication to the truth, it was something much more potent and essential: he brought confidence in both himself and what his mission was as a journalist. He brought, as Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza says, swagger.
Ben Bradlee once called journalism the “best damn job in the world,” and it was the respect he showed the medium and his own responsibility to it that made him such a force of nature within the industry. For 26 years he ran the Post‘s newsroom, guiding it through an era of political and cultural turbulence in America that Bradlee and those under his stewardship not only documented but actually defined. It was Bradlee who pressed Woodward and Bernstein to keep digging and to seal up the story of the Watergate break-in until it was airtight and it was Bradlee and Kay Graham who made the call on publishing stories based on the Pentagon Papers, taking the fight to be able to do so all the way to the Supreme Court.
You look at somebody like Bradlee and you imagine him as a brawler who’d never let anything stand in the way of the story. This is for the most part true, but it should be noted that Ben Bradlee always went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that story was accurate and that running it was the responsible thing to do. He balanced aggressiveness with careful consideration and demanded that the reporters and editors beneath him do the same. What he didn’t do was go for the cheap shot, the big “gotcha,” or in today’s parlance, the document dump. Bradlee understood that a journalist’s job was to not only inform the public but to add context and depth to that information by way of powerful storytelling. The Post racked up 17 Pulitzers under his command and the news department he created was almost without equal.
A lot has changed about journalism and those practicing it since Ben Bradlee stepped down as executive editor of The Washington Post in 1991. Hundreds more media outlets have sprung up while, ironically, trust in the press as a whole has plummeted. It’s doubtful a guy like Bradlee would be held in the kind of esteem he was when newspapers were dominant within the press and when the Post‘s booming voice drove the national conversation. We just don’t appreciate people like Bradlee anymore. His swagger, now, likely would come off as arrogance — his leadership branded as authoritarian, his belief in press responsibility decried as timid and corrupt, and his desire for journalistic elitism sniped at by a million self-styled experts with social media accounts.
Ben Bradlee was the perfect man for the times in which we had him. He was the person we needed at the helm of the Post for those 26 years. He was a titan of real journalism and a constant reminder of the good it can do. Losing him hurts not just because of what he accomplished in his lifetime but because there will never be someone like him again. And that’s the real loss for us.