Ben Bradlee's memoir: paying dues for the First Amendment Hubris: Even the vaunted Washington Post was haunted.


October 01, 1995|By William K. Marimow | William K. Marimow,SUN STAFF

In an era when news of complex and important issues is all too often reported in 15-second television news stories and articles offering little nuance and even less analysis, the work of serious journalists - both their formidable triumphs like Watergate and their distressing disasters - reinforce for us all why the First Amendment so forcefully spells out our rights of free speech and a free press.

At the core of the First Amendment is the belief that discussion, debate and dissection of public affairs should be - in the words of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan - "uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."

With that in mind, Brennan in the landmark First Amendment case of the New York Times vs. Sullivan wrote that it was as important for citizens to critically examine their government "as it is the official's duty to administer."

As a result of all that debate and all the information available in a democratic society, the theory goes, good ideas will prevail over bad ones in the marketplace of ideas, and the people will benefit.

The new autobiography of Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of the Washington Post during the era when it became one of America's best newspapers, provides ample evidence that the theory works.

On one level, Mr. Bradlee's book, "A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures" (Simon and Schuster. 514 pages. $27.50), is a compelling and colorful story about the life and times of a journalist whose career converged with many of the great stories of his generation.

On another, perhaps more subtle, level, the Post's great stories - and how the newspaper pursued them, overcame obstacles to get them, decided to publish them and how they affected the nation - provide for readers of this very entertaining and illuminating autobiography important insights into the inextricable relationship between the government and the press.

Launching his career at the New Hampshire Sunday News in February 1946, Mr. Bradlee got his training as a reporter in an era when journalists generally trusted the public officials they covered. Often, in his early years as a reporter, access to the men who made the news was far more important than analytical prowess or skill at uncovering the differences between a politician's campaign promises and his performance in office.

As a young staffer at Newsweek, Mr. Bradlee helped expose corruption in the Eisenhower administration. In October 1956, he covered the Israeli invasion of Egypt.

The following year, he bought a home in Georgetown, just a few months before John F. Kennedy moved onto his block. And he covered the White House for Newsweek when Kennedy, his friend and neighbor, became president. Then, in March 1965, Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, called him for lunch at the F Street Club, where she suggested that her newspaper might benefit by an infusion of new blood. Their talk led to a job offer, and Mr. Bradlee joined the Post that summer.

Thus began a remarkable new era at the Post. Over the next 26 years, Mr. Bradlee would invigorate and inspire a newsroom that broke some of the most distinguished and some of the most controversial stories of his times.

So how does Mr. Bradlee's life story relate to all this democratic theory? Both the stories Mr. Bradlee wrote and the ones he edited at the Post permeate the 499 pages of "A Good Life," and although Mr. Bradlee is no philosopher, his work at the Post demonstrates why courageous editors who understand democratic principles are an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy.

In many ways, the Vietnam War era, when enterprising and skeptical reporters began to discern the differences between official U. S. reports and battlefield facts, was a watershed in the relationship of the press and the government. For the Washington Post and Ben Bradlee, who in June 1971 was completing his sixth year as executive editor, Vietnam was an equally important turning point.

On Sunday, June 13, the New York Times began publishing stories based on a secret, 7,000-page study of the Vietnam War, commissioned by the government; by Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department obtained a court order prohibiting the Times from any further publication of stories based on the study, known as "The Pentagon Papers."

The next day, the Post's national editor Ben Bagdikian had 4,000 pages of the study in hand, and the Post's editors began preparing a story for the Thursday paper. As Mr. Bradlee writes, "With The Times silenced by the Federal Court in New York, we decided almost immediately we would publish a story the next morning. . . ." Of course, Mr. Bradlee's decision was not final: Attorneys for the newspaper, business executives and, most importantly, Publisher Graham would all have to be consulted.

Let's publish

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