Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ben Bradlee RIP

News sources are reporting on the passing of Ben Bradlee, the truly legendary editor of the Washington Post from 1965 to 1991. Robert Kaiser said this in the opening two paragraphs of his article for the Post:

Benjamin C. Bradlee, who presided over The Washington Post newsroom for 26 years and guided The Post’s transformation into one of the world’s leading newspapers, died Oct. 21 at his home in Washington of natural causes. He was 93.
From the moment he took over The Post newsroom in 1965, Mr. Bradlee sought to create an important newspaper that would go far beyond the traditional model of a metropolitan daily. He achieved that goal by combining compelling news stories based on aggressive reporting with engaging feature pieces of a kind previously associated with the best magazines. His charm and gift for leadership helped him hire and inspire a talented staff and eventually made him the most celebrated newspaper editor of his era.

Back in 2008 I wrote a post lamenting the decline in American journalism and wishing for a return to better times:

Wouldn't it be pleasant as well as informative to see the restoration of journalism standards that dominated major media throughout most of the 20th century? At least we would know where to turn - the editorial pages - for opinion. Don't get me wrong, I know the history of American newspapers is filled with bias, partisanship, and polemic....
When I lived in suburban DC (1964-76) I devoured the Washington Post in a fit of Potomac Fever almost every day. On vacations near Romney, West Virginia, I made a 60 mile round trip just to get the Sunday edition. That's bad fever. With Ben Bradlee as editor, and the extraordinary personality of Katherine Graham as publisher, the Post became a stellar newspaper. Toward the end of their reign in the late '90s, I believe the Post overshadowed the New York Times. Today, I don't buy either one, but I do review the Post daily as one would a hometown newspaper. As for the Times, I read the obituaries. Sometimes I wonder if they have a draft notice of their own demise. God knows they need it.

And here is what I said a bit over a year ago on the purchase of the Post by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos:

We've had our disagreements over the past six decades, but I must confess to having a serious affair with The Washington Post. Haven't been on real speaking terms with the paper for the past decade or so, still, the secret admiration burns on. It's all part of my "Potomac fever." In fact, I wrote a friend yesterday about dealing with my Post Addiction Deprivation Disorder, the fear of not having the Sunday edition of the the paper rattling in my hands at breakfast. Yes, the Internet brings me the pixels; however, nothing can replace the smell and smear of the ink on my fingers.
Yesterday's purchase of the Post by Jeff Bezos ends the Graham family era of ownership and operation of a once-great newspaper. I image millions of readers would enjoy the restoration of the quality brought to the paper by the likes of Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and Donald Graham. It will be interesting to see how Bezos treats his new acquisition.... 
I wish Bezos and the Post well. As for me, the affair simply marches on.

The affair marches on because journalists like Bradlee took enormous risks forging the paper into the nation's newspaper of record and setting journalistic standards recognized throughout the world. No question he left quite an impression on the American experience making 20th century journalism informative, investigative, and entertaining. Today's new journalism carries on much of what he did in a totally different environment. Whether or not that journalism can return successfully to a large corporate setting is a question for the future. Either way we can thank Ben Bradlee for getting it right. Spot on right.

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