Ben Bradlee, Newspaper Editor of Watergate Fame, Dies at 93

President Barack Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, in November 2013.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Fabled Editor, Dead at 93, Acknowledged His Ignorance

After Benjamin C. Bradlee entered hospice care in mid-September, this columnist asked a few female reporters and black journalists who worked under Bradlee in the Washington Post of the 1970s to assess him, anticipating the inevitable. Most declined.


It is clear, however, that while the Bradlee era has been defined as one of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, it was also one of black struggle and women's liberation, areas in which Bradlee had a steep learning curve. It is a tribute to Bradlee, who died Tuesday at age 93, that those who were willing to comment gave him the benefit of the doubt for lessons learned.

"Like many people of his class and era, he thought suing your employer was basically rude, and unions were there only to protect the incompetent," said Megan Rosenfeld, a Style section writer during that time.


"He favored women (as employees) who could out swagger him. But eventually he got it, and while I never heard him express regret over the way women had been treated — as opposed to minorities, which I think he did express regret for ignoring — I believe that deep down he knew we’d had a bad deal and had to fight and unite to be heard." Women at the Post filed charges of discrimination in 1974, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in their favor.

Ivan C. Brandon, one of the Metro Seven, black reporters who took the Post before the EEOC in 1972, said, "Ben Bradlee was brash, arrogant, loud and demanding, all of which helped make him one of the best newspaper editors of his time. He was fearless and every reporter who worked for him knew that he had their back. [I was] a young reporter who had little experience in a newsroom, [and] Bradlee set the example of what an editor should be. He set the bar very high and I doubt if there will ever be another one like him.


"No matter what you thought of him personally, you had to admire his style, his dedication and his love of the business."

Consider Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee's roots.

"To be blunt about it," he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, "A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures," I didn't know anything about blacks, or the black experience, and I was about to become involved in the leadership of the number-one newspaper in a city that was 70 percent black, and a readership that was 25 percent black. I had had no black friends growing up.


"There were no blacks in my boarding school, only three blacks in my class at college, none of whom I knew at all. I had only one black friend as a grown-up . . . my Newsweek colleague, Lionel Durand, in Paris. He was Haitian and French, and he didn't know all that much about American blacks. At Newsweek I had known a handful of black leaders, like Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Louis Martin, but I knew no ordinary black people. . . . "

Bradlee, who first came to the Post as a reporter in 1948, was describing his return to the newspaper in 1965 as deputy managing editor for national and international affairs. Fast forward to 1971, when Bradlee was executive editor. Jeff Himmelman, who had access to Bradlee's papers for his 2012 book, "Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee," wrote this passage:

"Every year, starting in 1969, Ben invited the top editors at the Post to a retreat at his country house on the Cacapon River in West Virginia. They called it, with some irony, 'Pugwash,' after the nuclear disarmament conferences started by Bertrand Russell in the fifties. It became a yearly and much larger tradition over time. A look at the proceedings from one of the early Pugwashes gives you some sense of what black reporters at the Post were up against:

"During the Pugwash of 1971, one of the major topics that the editors took up was the issue of race at the paper. Thankfully, somebody brought a tape recorder and used it.


" 'Certainly on the question of blacks Gene [Patterson, managing editor] and I have been deeply involved and deeply depressed,' Ben said at the start of the discussion. 'I had a black news aide that the fourth floor [composing room] ran out because they kept calling him a nigger.' A pretty concise description of the problem.

"Others had similar experiences. Harry Rosenfeld said simply, 'I want to see some white faces doing the menial jobs.' Howard Simons: 'I also find that we are racist in the sense that we regard the blacks at the Washington Post in a monolithic way. We talk about them as blacks. We don't talk about the whites that way — we talk about the whites as individuals.'


"Everybody agreed that they needed to offer more and better training for black reporters, and then a debate ensued about newsroom culture. Should reporters be allowed to wear black power necklaces and that kind of thing? 'If a guy goes out with a black fist or a button, he's telling people what he thinks, he's taking a position,' one editor said. 'I don't think he should.'

" 'More than an Afro hairdo and those sharp flared pants?' Ben interjected. 'My God.'


"It sounds like what it is, a bunch of World War II-era white guys talking about black people as if they were Martians. But reading through the whole transcript, I was struck by how genuine and thoughtful the debate was, despite the cultural barriers and some of the paternalistic terminology. They didn't have the answers for the racial problems at the Post, but their effort to try to figure it out feels sincere. 'We were all trying very hard,' Gene Patterson told me, 'but we were learning together, and we were learning very slowly.' . . . ."

The Post has always had a higher-than-average percentage of journalists of color on its staff. But as the late Post columnist William Raspberry said, "When you do more, more is expected of you."


The year after the 1971 Pugwash, the Metro Seven, which included this columnist, presented Bradlee with a plan for goals and timetables at the Post newsroom. Bradlee rejected it, calling it a quota system. "The only quota appropriate for this newspaper is a quota on quality," the editor said.

Five years after the Post rejected goals and timetables, Robert C. Maynard, who had been the Post ombudsman, left the newspaper saying he knew he would never rise to the top job. He later became editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune and co-founder of what is now the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.


The racial issue blew up for Bradlee again in 1980, when black reporter Janet Cooke, who had impressed Bradlee with false claims that she had graduated from Vassar and studied at the Sorbonne, fabricated a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. "Jimmy's World" won a Pulitzer Prize, which the Post returned when the fabrication was uncovered.

"How come we never checked" her credentials? Bradlee asked in his autobiography. He answered, "Simply put, Janet Cooke was too good to be true, and we wanted her too bad."


Writer Jill Nelson noted Bradlee's interest in the credentials of the privileged in her 1993 book "Volunteer Slavery." Maida Odom wrote then in the Philadelphia Inquirer,  "On the day she was interviewed for a writing job at the Washington Post's new magazine in 1986, she recalls, the conversations seemed less about her work and more about her.

"Editor Ben Bradlee, who has since retired, warmed up, according to Nelson, only after she told him she'd summered each year at Martha's Vineyard. The privileged background that Nelson had alternately enjoyed and eschewed had given her an 'in.' . . ."


In 1998, after Bradlee had stepped down as top editor, he wrote to Katharine Graham, the publisher who was his partner in the Post's greatest moments.

"When I got to the Post, I knew that I wasn't a racist — I just knew it — and therefore I could not get my arms around the concept that intelligent people thought I was. And of course from their point of view I was. Because of my totally white perspective, because of my total removal from the black experience, because of my unawareness of the common denominators of the black experience — like poverty, like inferior educations, like unequal opportunities . . . I began, just barely began, to grasp the fact that there was a white version of the truth and a black version of the truth, and they had damn little to do with each other."


Indeed, by 1986 the Post, which had rejected goals and timetables as quotas, embraced the idea that a newspaper should reflect the demographics of its circulation area. That has also been the goal, on a national level, of the American Society of News Editors.

Ben W. Gilbert, a former Post city editor who worked at the Post from 1941 to 1970, quoted Roger Wilkins, whose Watergate editorials helped win the Post the 1973 Pulitizer Prize for public service, on what Wilkins saw as two versions of the truth.


"Roger Wilkins, a candid black observer who served as a U. S. assistant attorney general in the 1960s and worked as an editorial writer on the Post and other newspapers, viewed some of the problems facing African American journalists as cultural," Gilbert wrote in a history of race relations at the Post in the fall/winter 1993/1994 edition of Washington History, published by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

" 'Traits which are valued in whites (and which make people good journalists) are discouraged in blacks,' Wilkins wrote the author. "The black youngster is apt to hesitate a step, to be cautious, to look for clues that are reinforcing and supportive.' Wilkins urged a 'sustained and intelligent interest and pressure from the publisher' coupled with thoughtful training of editors. 'A publisher should never underestimate the ignorance of his supervisors — or their residual bigotry.' . . ."


Bobbi Bowman, a member of the Metro Seven whose Post afterlife included time as diversity director for ASNE, chose to look beyond racial issues when asked to evaluate Bradlee.

"I will always thank Ben Bradlee for teaching me what it takes to run a newspaper that's fearless in pursuit of news for its readers," she said. "A fearless publisher and a fearless editor."


Marilyn Berger, New York Times: Ben Bradlee, Editor Who Directed Watergate Coverage, Dies at 93

Julia Carpenter and Paul Farhi, Washington Post: Remembering Ben Bradlee: 'No one had more fun chasing a big story'


David Carr, New York Times: Ben Bradlee's Charmed, Charming Life

Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post: Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post editor, dies at 93

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