… is today’s newspaper. Here the executive editor of the Washington ‘Post’ takes us on a spirited dash through the minefields that await reporters and editors who gather and disseminate a most valuable commodity.
As executive editor of the Washington Post , Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee guides and shapes one of the two or three best newspapers in America. He has been called “a born leader, a quick study … and intuitive. His paper reflects his own interest and hunches. ” He is a brash and outspoken man, and all the world knows when he wins—as with the paper’s daring reporting on Watergate—and when he loses—as in the embarrassing Janet Cooke affair in which Cooke, a Post reporter, had to give up a Pulitzer Prize awarded for a story that turned out to be phony.
Bradlee’s private life is no secret either: it is common knowledge that he is married to one of his star reporters, Sally Quinn, and that at age sixty he became a father again. (He turned sixty-one in August.) Yet few people know what Bradlee really thinks of the press and the Post , of the power and the role of the paper—and the power and the role of the editor.
In April, Bradlee agreed to be interviewed for AMERICAN HERITAGE by his colleague Michael Gartner, editor and president of the highly esteemed Des Moines Register . They spent an afternoon talking in a suite in the Jefferson Hotel in Washington at a time when Central America was cooling down, the Falklands were heating up, and Josiah Quinn Crowninshield Bradlee was arriving. Here, with some expletives deleted, is what they said.
Everyone has read a lot about you. All the world knows who you are. People have chronicled everything from the way you walk—“jaunty”—to your voice—“raspy”—to every detail of your intimate life. You’ve been portrayed in a movie. You’ve been called everything from charming to crude. Someone said you “could easily be mistaken for a bookie.” You sound like a composite character. So let’s skip all that stuff. What I want to know is this: What do you do? What does the executive editor of the Washington Post do?
Well, like the editor of any newspaper, the executive editor of the Post leads a group of more or less talented people and persuades, cajoles, cudgels them to come as close to the truth as they humanly can in a period of twelve or fifteen hours.
How do you do it?
You lead, you inspire. The first thing you do is hire. You surround yourself with the most talented, intelligent, and delightful people you can find, and you let them do their jobs.
And just leave it to them?
Leave it to them. An editor has to stand between the staff of reporters and editors and various other forces, including the public, the government, and the owners.
How do you deal with those pressures? How do you deal with pressures from the owners?
I have worked for only one daily newspaper in my life, and that means I only know one set of owners. They are not typical. In fact, they are unique. So how do you deal with the Grahams? You count your blessings every day, and I mean this without blowing smoke at them. You count your blessings that you are working for someone who’s got a commitment like theirs to quality and to excellence. They own the paper, of course. They have a right to know what the hell’s going on, and they want to know before you go off the thirty-five-foot board whether there’s water in the pool.
Do they ever say, “Don’t dive”?
In all my eighteen years here, they’ve never said that. Although they like to argue it out, talk about it, to know what my motive is.
How do you deal with Presidents and politicians when you’re the executive editor of the Post?
There’s a marvelous saying from the Sayings of the Fathers. It goes, “Love work, hate domination and don’t get too close to the ruling class.” I always thought that was marvelous advice for editors, though it’s advice I’ve not always followed. By a series of accidents, I did get close to one President. For the editor of the Washington Post, and I suspect for other editors, the most important thing about a big shot is, Will he answer the phone if you really need him? I’m not talking about the President, because that would be an exception. But a secretary of state or a secretary of defense or a White House adviser. And that’s about as close as you need to get.
What do you do in return?
Answer your phone if he really needs you?
Sure. But I answer a call from anybody.
You were once quoted as saying, “I want to have some impact on this town and this country.”
I think we’re all in this business to do that. When you reduce it to its idealistic essence, you want to make a difference.
What impact have you had?
I think I’ve helped build an institution, a newspaper that you’ve got to read if you want to understand what’s going on in Washington and maybe even if you want to understand what’s going on in the country and the world. I’m not saying that if you do read us you will understand it, but if you want to understand it you’ve got to read it. As for my personal goal, I want to make a difference. I want the paper to make a difference. In primitive terms, you’d like to leave the world a little bit better than you found it. You hope that as a result of your work and the work of other people on the team that the people of your community are better informed, better understand the workings of government, are closer to truth, and therefore freer in the biblical sense.
So you have a mission?
Mission has other implications that I don’t like. But purpose, yes.
Do you think the purpose of the New York Times is the same as the purpose of the Post?
I think the purpose of the Times —well, let them talk about what their purpose is. I mean it’s a helluva newspaper, and it seems to me that what I describe as my goal is pretty close to their achievement.
Dick Harwood, the deputy managing editor of the Post, once said about the Post: “Our standards are subjective and whimsical. They reflect our taste, values, prejudices, opinions and conveniences.” Is that true?
Sure it’s true.
Then what are your prejudices, tastes, opinions, conveniences …?
I have certain prejudices, obviously. I go back to “hate domination.” I don’t like bullies, I don’t like liars. I’m really prejudiced against them. I don’t like people who look me in the eye and tell me a lie and therefore, through me, tell a lie to the world. On the other hand, I’m sort of attracted to rogues. They interest me more than stuffed shirts. I like the Washington Redskins. I don’t like phonies. I love the outdoors.
Is all of this reflected in the Post?
Well, in some ways. Any editor knows how accidental and arbitrary some of the small decisions are. At the Post, Howard Simons is our managing editor. He’s a science freak—science stories interest him and appeal to him. And since many of the day-to-day decisions of how the newspaper plays a story are his, it seems to me that stories about the ozone layer and the latest discovery of Dr. Leakey get played more prominently than if I were doing it. About the ozone layer: I can’t be convinced that when somebody sprays a deodorant in the bathroom of the second story of a hotel, the ozone layer is going to disappear. But he knows more about that than I do. I love stories about low doings in high places. I always have. As a kid I remember being thrown downstairs by the chief of police of Manchester, New Hampshire, and I’ve always been interested in cops and police stories. I love trial stories.
Yet you once said you’re kind of above ideology.
I am. I’m not political at all.
You have no ideological interest in politics? You’ve got a mechanical interest in politics but not an ideological interest in politics?
That’s right. Katharine Graham said the other day, describing somebody who had no interest in politics, “He’s like you, he’s nothing.” I hope what she was trying to say was I’m not left or right or Democrat or Republican. When President Nixon was elected and came to Washington, people said that the Washington Post would go crazy, we would all go crazy. It would be boring. We’d be dulled out, we’d be frozen out. But it certainly was the six or seven most interesting years I’ve ever spent. The ideology of it doesn’t interest me at all. I mean, the only discouragement I have about Watergate, really, is that Nixon was a Republican and not a Democrat. It would have been so much easier if he’d been a Democrat, because we could’ve ducked this charge that the Post is interested in uncovering skullduggery only in the Republican party. Never mind Wayne Hays and never mind Wilbur Mills and a few other people like that.
That brings up a related subject. What should the relationship be between the person running the news department and the person running the editorial page?
In our paper it is as separate as church and state. And I believe in that strongly. I’ve never been to a meeting of the editorial board in eighteen years. And editorial writers have never been to a meeting of the news department. I’m not consulted about political endorsements. It would be much better, strictly from the selfish point of view of the news department, if the paper didn’t endorse. When we endorse a mayor, for instance, in the middle of a race here, the other candidates say to our reporters, “What the hell, you’ve already made up your minds who you’re for.” They don’t understand the subtleties, and I don’t think readers ever believe it when you talk about this separation of powers. They say, “You mean to tell me you yourself couldn’t write an editorial if you wanted to?”
Well then, what about when they write editorials about the news side? For instance in that “Ear” flap. [“The Ear,” a gossip column in the Post, printed an erroneous item about President Carter. The Post eventually apologized, and then it editorialized about the incident.]
It makes for kind of a family scrap. It’s like Sunday lunch with all the kids around the table when one starts criticizing another, but I think that’s ultimately good, too. I think a newspaper should be a vibrant, not totally structured, enterprise. There should be some things as you go through the newspaper that make you say, “I’ll be damned, look what they’ve done now.” So what if the news department gets criticized by the editorial page? If anybody thinks that even the best news department is always right, they’re benighted.
What’s your batting average on being right?
Well, this is a terribly important thing about our business. We are writing what Phil Graham called the “first rough draft of history.” We are writing it under terribly difficult circumstances. The first difficult circumstance is time. We’ve got to stop doing it at a certain time, stop reporting it and go ahead and write it. The event doesn’t stop, we stop. The second thing is that people don’t tell you the truth. I mean it’s just quite as simple as that. Including those people who think they are telling you the truth. One of the really glorious aspects of modern history, for me, is to read the versions of participants in major events and to see how they differ. Each one thinks he’s telling the truth, and it comes out different. So if you have the President of the United States look you straight in the eye and say the reason he can’t tell you something about, say, Watergate is because it’s national security, you write that. You’ve told a lie. I mean you’ve misled the ————out of the readers, but it’s not really your fault. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” about computers is even more true about newspapers. You’re no better than what people tell you. Obviously you try to screen out the deceptions. I think if Washington has changed in any way in the last twenty years, it is in the increased deception by the government. Under the veil of national security the government tries to slip past the people an awful lot that has nothing to do with national security.
So, you’ve got lying sources, and good reporters and editors who screen, and a time problem, What’s your batting average?
Wait a minute, I’ll get to the batting average. You have frail reporters and you have editors who slip, who don’t spot something. Our batting average— if you would allow me a year’s batting average rather than one game—is consistently high. The truth should emerge from a newspaper. It may not be all there in one day, but it comes out. Walter Lippmann said that truth emerges day after day, and if you have a situation like the Falkland Islands or a situation like Nicaragua or El Salvador, you do the best you can today and you go back at it tomorrow and learn different facts that change it slightly. You’ve got to do that. And the readers have got to trust you, got to go with you on that. The reader has to understand that you don’t get it all the first time. And I think editors over the years have been reluctant to admit that newspapers at their best are incomplete, and at their worst they are wrong.
Do reporters understand this?
I think the best ones do, and by the time a reporter in this town has been hitting the best pitching, he understands it. I mean, you can’t go through something like the Vietnam war as a reporter, either here or there, and have any faith that you are being told the truth at any given time. Really, it almost comes down to this: If the director of the CIA or some other big agency asks to see you, he’s going to lay something on you that’s probably not right.
Do you think your reporters make that assumption?
Well, I hope they are trained to be more than just a conduit.
But what you’re saying is that you and the Post reporters and the newspaper industry in general are skeptical and cynical?
I am. And thank God for that.
Doesn’t that just add to the public’s distrust of the press?
Well, it may, and I don’t see any way out of that. But I think that the public should take some time to understand. Life is terribly complicated now. For instance, I don’t happen to know whether we have enough weapons or weapons systems or the right ones. I hate to have as important a question as that absolutely closed to me. Yet I don’t know the answer. I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve had people I respect tell me yes and tell me no.
So what do you do?
So, I say, let’s find out. And that’s one of the goals of the reporter, to find out.
And if you find out, you print it and the public believes or doesn’t believe. Does the public believe what it reads in the paper? Not your paper or my paper but any paper.
Sure. The overwhelming majority of the information in the newspapers is not susceptible to any kind of misunderstanding. Baseball scores, weather, crossword puzzles, comics, Buchwald, you know. The issue is not even joined over more than a small percentage of the paper. That’s why I think they believe.
How powerful are you?
I don’t know. Goddamn it. Everybody tells me that I’m powerful. But I can’t get the trash collected. I mean, if I try to exert any real power around here the way it is exerted by “powerful” people in America, I’d be laughed out of town. Let me try to fix a parking ticket the way you do.
I don’t fix parking tickets.
Well, there aren’t many editors in America who pay parking tickets. And I do, because I’m so scared of getting caught if I don’t.
Once more, how powerful are you?
The power of the Washington Post lies mostly in its ability to focus national attention on certain subjects. If the editors of the Post think something’s important, they can wheel up their f irepower to concentrate on that subject, and therefore that subject is apt to be taken seriously by a significant portion of the country.
Including those who can do something about it?
Yes. Our readers are not typical. They have better resumes than most newspaper readers. The assignment editors of the network news operations read us and respond. So do the bureau chiefs of other newspapers and of the newsmagazines. I mean, I once ran a newsmagazine bureau in this town, and I know damn well how important the Washington Post is.
Well, if you’ve got five hundred people doing something every day, you can cover a helluva lot more ground than twenty people covering it once a week. Setting the agenda is the old cliché.
Do you think about that when you launch something?
No, not a damn bit. Not for five seconds. And I didn’t during Watergate. We just kept everybody at it. Most of you editors from out in the boondocks thought we were out of our goddamn mind.
So you can set the agenda?
We can help set the agenda.
But who sets the agenda for the nation? The Washington Post and who else?
The New York Times and the television networks and Time and Newsweek.
Does that worry you at all?
No. I mean, look, we’re not unqualified. We got in this terrible argument the other day in the newsroom about “Who the hell elected you, Bradlee?” Of course, the answer in my case is that Katharine Graham elected me, and who elected her? Her old man elected her. And who elected him? Nobody. He bought the paper at an auction on the steps of a building two blocks from the White House. But we’re not unintelligent, not even unpatriotic, as our critics sometimes charge. I don’t know how to say this without blowing my horn, but I have spent more time in combat defending my country than any nonmilitary President of the United States, and that’s why when aspersions are cast upon my patriotism I get a little pissed. Also, I was in the foreign service for a couple of years. I know something about serving my country, and I care a helluva lot about it. I had a good education, a reasonably good upbringing, I’ve stayed out of jail, I’m not a drunk or a dope-taker. So we’re not unqualified. In this town, when you have to listen to an assistant secretary of defense who might have been selling cars in Omaha two years ago tell you what’s a matter of national security or what isn’t, I mean excuse me.
Then why does the public doubt the press?
Well, I think it has to do with our role as the messenger bearing bad news. Six hundred planes land safely every day at National Airport, and we don’t pay any goddamn attention to it. One misses, and we are there by the scores. We can write one story about a whole department of government working right, and people won’t pay any attention to it. We did a survey of our paper once. We got three stamps printed. One with the corners of the mouth upturned for good news. One straight for not good or bad, and one mouth downturned for bad news. And the paper was overwhelmingly filled with good news. And the bad news was restricted to almost a few pages—the obit page, for instance. And even then some bastard dies, and it’s good news to some.
Why do people trust television news more than they trust newspaper news?
Because it comes coated and in very small doses and it disappears. You can’t Xerox television, and it doesn’t hang around there talking to you. I don’t say this in any disparaging sense, because an editor who doesn’t recognize the power and the instantaneousness of television is deceiving himself. But just sit in a group—among people who aren’t news junkies—and watch the evening news. Then turn it off and turn to the first person and ask, “What did Cronkite say about that Central American country?” or ask,” What Central American country was he talking about?” and you will be stunned how little they know.
How about after they put down the newspaper?
It’s still there, they can go back. They see a map and the map is right there, and if they don’t understand the first paragraph—which in the Washington Post is liable to be 150 words long, which is a minute and a half on television—they go back and read it over again. The time people spend worrying about whether Dan Rather should wear a sweater or not bothers me because a vastly more important thing is the network decision not to go to an hour of news.
What about celebrity journalism—the newsman as a star?
Now there’s something that really bothers me, and I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that since Watergate the notoriety of this paper and of the people on it has just blown out of all proportion. It intrudes on the process, and I don’t think that’s good. But I don’t know how to duck it.
Deep down you like it.
No, no, no. You know me well enough to know that there is a little part of me that says, “Holy ————, did you hear those people say, ‘There goes Ben Bradlee!’ ” or something like that. But that part is kind of a joke, especially if you’re married to somebody who won’t let you take yourself too seriously.
She doesn’t say, “There goes Ben Bradlee!”
Are you kidding? But some of the notoriety is helpful.
How? Does it give you entrée?
Yes. People are a little more interested in answering the phone, I think, than if I were some faceless mole. And that’s useful. I mean, I live by that—somebody answering the phone.
The Washington Journalism Review seems to have reduced your notoriety to initials—GBS, Guessing Bradlee’s Successor.
Oh, yes, that’s been going on for years. That works ultimately to my benefit because it forces Don Graham to put out some very supportive statement like, “Bradlee is the editor as long as he wants to be.” Statements he may well regret, after a while. But that kind of notoriety is fascinating because it seems to be concentrated on the Post . I admit that could be my paranoia, but that kind of attention is not concentrated on CBS. It is not concentrated on the New York Times . The world fed for days on our Janet Cooke story, and every single bit of information about that story was put out first by the Post .There was no coverup. Another newspaper, sometime later, gets in exactly the same trouble—a story which was very prominently featured, totally made up, and nobody is investigating it.
The Times Magazine piece? [The New York Times Magazine article, allegedly an account of a free-lance writer’s visit to Cambodia, turned out to be phony.]
Yeah. I mean, the National News Council wouldn’t think of investigating that. That’s family.
But you broke the story with a certain amount of glee.
We have to do what we have to do.
You didn’t take any joy in printing a story like that?
No, it’s a tough profession. The point is, we’re in a spotlight. It’s there. It’s Woodward, it’s Bernstein, it’s the movie, it’s Katharine Graham, “embattled widow who triumphs over adversity and becomes the most powerful woman in the world”—that’s what we keep telling her.
Brash, charming editor who can speak fluent French or gutter English?
Listen, you play the cards that you were dealt. I can speak French. I am what I am.
Is your notoriety good for journalism?
Well, you’d be a better judge than I, probably. Am I too far out front?
No, you’re a famous person. Abe Rosenthal [executive editor of the New York Times] is a famous person.
I don’t see that it’s bad. I don’t see where that sets journalism back any. I mean, listen, we’re not talking about Abe Rosenthal and Ben Bradlee, we’re talking about the editor of the Post and the editor of the Times . It’s ex officio, and those people, it seems to me—well, the world could do worse.
Explain this to me. You have a theory that editors should keep their ideologies to themselves, whether it’s politics or sports or anything else. And they should stay away from the editorial page. Their relationship to the corporation, you once said …
I resigned from the board of directors of the Washington Post Company.
Yes. You once said: “The older I get the more finely tuned my sense of conflict of interest seems to become. I don’t think executive editors in charge of news should have anything to do with editorials. I don’t think editors should be officers of the company. I don’t think editors should join in any civic groups, clubs, institutions. I truly believe that people on the business side of newspapers shouldn’t either.” Do you still believe that?
Yes. Well, Howard and I spent a lot of time trying to get Katharine off all outside boards. We got her out of one country club that she never should have been in in the first place. We’ve tried to get her off the board of directors of Allied Chemical, which her father founded. And we got her ready to go, and just as soon as we did, they discovered Kepone in the James River—Allied makes Kepone—so she felt she couldn’t get off.
The New York Herald-Tribune used to run a Fresh-Air Fund, the Times runs the Neediest Cases. Do you think that’s a proper role for a newspaper within its community?
Well, I’d be happier if the Times or any newspaper just wrote out a check instead.
Yet you’ve got a columnist at the Post who kind of does that.
Yes, and he and his predecessors have raised an awful lot of money for children’s hospitals. So obviously, we’ve thought about that.
What I’m really trying to figure out is: What’s the newspaper’s role in the community besides being a purveyor of news and opinion and analysis and entertainment and information?
Not a helluva lot more. You’re talking like a publisher now, and I’m not very comfortable as a publisher. I think the editor’s role in terms of the community is hands off. But I think the company has a role as a good citizen. It should contribute to good causes.
Cash, but not space?
Well, you do give an enormous amount of space to civic institutions. And space equals cash, whether it’s a story about a baseball team, football team, or a city hall. I suspect that a monopoly newspaper in a major city can’t write a bleeder without raising a couple thousand dollars for the bleedee. Back in my days as a kid reporter here, when you wrote one of those stories at Thanksgiving or Christmas you’d get five or six hundred dollars in checks in the mail.
But you shouldn’t be espousing causes?
No, you shouldn’t be a booster. Let the editorial page espouse all the causes.
What about efforts on behalf of things that go to the very lifeblood of the institution, for instance the First Amendment?
Well, same thing. I’ve never testified before a committee of Congress. I don’t see me going up there and asking those guys for anything. I believe we’ve got all the protection we need in the Constitution, and I don’t want to go up there and ask some guy for shield laws or anything. Because if they give it to you, they can take it away. I’ve been asked three or four times to testify publicly and have said no. I’ve been asked three or four times to come up and give my views privately, and I think that’s even worse.
Yet you’ll give your views privately at a cocktail party or a dinner party.
I’m giving my views publicly right here.
What’s the distinction?
One is government and the other isn’t.
The private one is the real government, though—the government you move in. It’s dinner at Buchwald’s house. Or it’s lunch with Edward Bennett Williams.
Is that the real government? Come on!
That’s the government that gets things done.
We talk about the Redskins and we talk about girls.
That’s the real government.
I think you’re belittling my motive, which is to stay far away from the rulers. And I think there’s virtue in that.
From the elected rulers?
Yeah. Don’t ask them for favors, don’t take favors.
Don’t give favors and don’t take favors?
Actually, the sin that is generally perpetrated by newspapers is that they go too far in the direction of not giving their friends an even break. We err ridiculously. I mean, we don’t cover drunk arrests normally. Unless they’re friends of the editors or friends of the publishers or relatives of either one.
Or divorces. I mean, that’s a whole other thing. That whole personal life. My living arrangements were a major topic for years, and other editors’ living arrangements weren’t.
Does that bother you?
But you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Right, so I took it. I guess it’s permitted to note the different standard. I just don’t understand it.
Why not? You’re a big, famous person. The Post itself chronicles the living arrangements of people.
Only if they’re running for high office. Which I’m not. And if nominated, I will not…
Would your principles be the same if you were the executive editor of a paper in Everett, Washington?
Probably not. I worked as a copy boy on a little paper in Beverly, Massachusetts, and I didn’t have many of these highfalutin ideas there. And you’re much more part of the community in a town like that. You walk down Main Street and go into every store and pick up the little notes on who was visiting with whom and who was sick and things like that. And in a quite literal sense the owner of the paper did the same thing, and he wouldn’t any more put in anything bad about any friend or …
Is that okay?
It’s just different.
That raises an allied subject. What about the chains, where the editors move up like they’re IBM executives, keep going to a bigger plant or a bigger paper? What’s your view of chains?
I don’t know. I’ve never worked for one, and I don’t read many of them. When the best newspapers in America are discussed, it doesn’t seem to me that chain papers lead all the rest. And as Al Neuharth of Gannett always says, the Washington Post is part of a chain because we happen to own that paper in Everett, Washington.
And occasionally try to buy another one.
And occasionally try to buy another one. I’d like to see a study on whether, if a paper is yea good, by some subjective standard, and is bought by Gannett, it would become yea minus two or yea plus two good. I don’t know the answer.
How about the concentration of power in chains? The fact that as of 10:30 A.M. today or whatever, Gannett owns eighty-five or eighty-six or eighty-seven newspapers, does that trouble you at all?
It does, and in an ideal world, that’s too many papers owned by one company. But the remedy for that is much worse than the disease. I think that the First Amendment all by itself would make it unconstitutional for the government to say to a newspaper proprietor that “you can or cannot own this.”
How about papers like the New York Post, the Murdoch type of journalism? What do you think of that?
I think it stinks.
It sells newspapers.
It sells newspapers. But I have confidence that that’ll wash out. As I go back over the papers that have disappeared, it’s hard to remember really good newspapers going down.
The New York Herald-Tribune?
The Herald-Tribune is certainly one and the Washington Star another.
Did the death of the Star cause major changes at the Post?
Well, the death of the Star is certainly bringing some pressures to bear. Letters that used to start out just plain, “You bastards,” now start out, “Now that you’re the only game in town, you bastards. …” The pressures that were once divided into two are now all focused on the Post .
Do you wish you weren’t the only game in town?
Sometimes. There is no question that in the abstract a community is best served if it has more than one voice. It prevents tyranny, it prevents lots of things. And therefore in the abstract you believe in two newspapers at least, and I don’t know why you should stop at two. But if you’re like me, you’re an instinctively competitive person, and you are taught from an early age that you do the very best you can today and you try to do better tomorrow. And if you really succeed in that, you’re going to get better. And probably two papers in a town aren’t both going to get better. So the logical outcome of a very competitive situation is survival by one. But I wish the Star were still around.
You feel a greater responsibility?
Yeah. And I feel that life’s going to be harder to manage. Now there are going to be great pressures put on the Washington Post not to rock the boat. Great pressures from the owners because the community will put pressures on the owners. Great pressures from the community directly to editors and to reporters. The shadow cast by this paper, which is already large, will become larger and will attract even more attention. And that will tend to make people’s sphincters tighten, and that is the danger I see, that there will be great pressures to bland the paper out.
How will you respond?
By recognizing those pressures and trying to counter them.
Earlier you said that one of the functions of a good editor is to lead interference, to keep the news people away from the bean counters.
And give them the time, the atmosphere, and the freedom to do what they should do.
So the good editor just shoulders all those pressures himself and doesn’t pass it along? But how do you deal with it?
Well, the first way you deal with it is you recognize it, identify it, see it coming. And in a strictly political sense you work to neutralize those pressures. You have lobbies in this town. They really play hard ball, and I don’t know what more you could do but take that pressure yourself instead of letting reporters take it. As for the pressure that comes from being a monopoly paper, you have to identify it and maybe joke a little about it.
What about internal pressures? Is resignation the ultimate weapon that an editor has against a publisher?
Yeah. Wiggins [Russell Wiggins, former editor of the Post ] used to say, “Keep your hat on, Bradlee.” It’s their game. And there’s nothing saying they have to keep you if they don’t like you.
Have you ever come close to that point?
No, I’ve recognized it as a weapon once or twice but never mentioned it. I suppose that if the Pentagon Papers decision had been not to publish, that was an option I had.
And Watergate. But it never came close. And Katharine … in the Pentagon Papers, it was she who overrode the lawyers and said, “Let’s go ahead and publish.”
With some help from you?
Well, of course, that’s my role. And, yes, well-orchestrated help, well-orchestrated. In Watergate it never came up. Although a couple of times we nervously asked each other, “Jesus, are we right?”
You say lobbies are strong. They come, they complain.
And they resent the spotlight. They resent being identified. They resent being followed. It’s one of the most interesting stories in this town, and one of the hardest to cover. Pressure. Pressure groups. The pressure boys.
But sometimes you are wrong.
Of course we are.
And you run corrections that say, “Joe Smith really lived at 1412 Wisconsin, N.W., not. …” But you never run a correction that says, “Gee, the whole thrust of that piece yesterday was wrong,” do you?
We do. We have several ways to set the record straight. One is the ombudsman concept, which a lot of you big-shot editors don’t like but which I think is an extraordinarily creative and useful force.
Useful for the reader or for the newspaper?
Both. But certainly for the reader, who has someone who represents him at the paper and who is absolutely independent and who can write anything and who does write anything and criticizes me in my own paper. You don’t have anybody criticizing you in your paper. The New York Times has nobody criticizing them in their paper. Not one. And we do. Of course, I would love it if I didn’t have to say “I’m sorry” in 1982. That would just suit me fine.
But you’re going to be responsible?
A daily newspaper is a fragile, vibrant first draft of history, as I’ve said, and you’re going to have to understand that it is frail, and that the people who are doing it are frail, and that the people who are supplying the information are frail, and that we’re going to be wrong at times. No one intends to be wrong. If you find somebody who does, you exorcise them as quickly as possible. It’s not a sign of anything bad to admit mistakes.
I’m just reading James MacGregor Burns’ book The Vineyard of Liberty, and he talks about how Hamilton and Jefferson each basically had their own newspaper in those days. And they were just scurrilous, terrible, rotten things. And yet they wrote the First Amendment to protect those things. And they were livelier, probably, than the Post is today. Why should the press be responsible?
Because of its power and because of the fact that it sets an agenda for a community or for a nation.
Does it lose a little something in being responsible? The New York Post isn’t responsible.
It isn’t, but I think a newspaper also has a responsibility not to be dull. You just can’t dull everything out by including every single scrap of information and making no judgments at all and just listing it all alphabetically. You’ve got to be lively, you’ve got to be bold, you’ve got to take a risk every so often. You’ve got to be read.
What’s the difference between liveliness and hype?
That’s one of the things you have editors for. Hype is when you consciously exaggerate into falsehood, and liveliness is when you try to be sure something is well written and well presented and interesting.
Is the Washington Post a lively paper?
I think it is.
Is the New York Times?
Much more than it was. I dare you to go back fifteen years and compare the Times then with the Times now.
What are the good papers?
Don’t ask me that. The good papers that I read include the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal , the Washington Post. Those are the ones that I read regularly. The Los Angeles Times is a good paper. The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune are pretty good papers nowadays. I think the Dallas papers are getting better. I think there are a lot of overrated papers, but I just don’t want to get into it.
I’ve got enough trouble.
Are there papers you wouldn’t hire anybody off of?
I doubt that that would be an iron rule. But there are papers whose editor’s letters of recommendation would not mean much.
You were talking about liveliness. How about the so-called hard news versus soft news. You’re a hardsnews man.
Well, sure, I’m interested in hard news, but I spent twelve years on a weekly newsmagazine, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of soft news. In fact, if you asked me what’s the difference between the Washington Post today and the Washington Post in August of ‘65,1 would say that the Post today is much more a daily newsmagazine than it was. And I think that if I were editor of a weekly newsmagazine now, that would worry me. I think that most good, important newspapers are as big as Mount Olympus and they are publishing good sports sections, good cultural sections, good amusements sections. They have more medical writers than the newsmagazines do. And every single day they come out with one of those big papers. And I promise you, go back twenty-five or thirty years and you’ll be stunned by the change.
Do you give readers too much?
No, you were talking about hard news versus soft news. I don’t think we’re ducking either. But we do have more feature and analysis stories on page one now than we ever used to. It used to be the analysis all waited for Sunday in the “Outlook” section. That’s not true now.
What’s the difference between analysis and opinion?
Well, in analysis you’re supposed to be showing all sides of a subject, and in opinion you’re coming down on one side. We try to keep opinion out.
Do you succeed?
Most of the time. Most of the time it’s easy to get it out. I mean, any good rewrite man knows if you load a story up with “despites” and “even thoughs” and “alleges” you can spot what the guy’s got in his mind. You can take it out, generally with just a pencil. Where the opinion of a paper shows up in the news columns is in the selection of stories. That’s a fact. And I don’t think it’s reporters writing something like, “In a grotesque action yesterday, the mayor,” et cetera. You don’t see that in a paper today. But if the mayor’s hands are in the cookie jar, you can either make it an eight-column banner or put it back in the truss ads. You can make your point that way.
But you were saying that with their education and experience, editors are quite qualified to make those points. That they are paid to do so.
To make judgments about what’s important and what isn’t, yes.
Do you do that at the Post? Or are you above that?
It’s the fun part of the job.
But do you do it? Do you go to the news conference every day?
I sure as hell do, twice a day.
Do you run it?
No, Howard runs it.
Do you overrule, second-guess?
I don’t publicly. But I wouldn’t let the managing editor go through a minefield without pointing out where I thought the mines were. We’ve been together for a long time, so it never comes to that. I mean, if I thought Howard was doing something wrong, rather than say, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever saw,” I would wait and then go in his office and say it. But that doesn’t happen. Plus the fact that other editors here now, the people who are left in charge, are just as qualified as either one of us, and they can and do change the paper as the news changes during the night.
Are they all cut in your mold?
Totally different. In the Agnew days, people said we were all Eastern establishment. And yet we had Simons, who’s Jewish, from Union College in Albany; Bradlee, a WASP from Harvard and Boston; Harwood, a hillbilly from Vanderbilt and Tennessee or wherever the hell he came from. It’s a very big, wide spectrum. A lot of Florida people for some goddamn reason, now. The University of Florida, and a St. Petersburg crowd. That’s been a good recruiting ground for us. And all of a sudden we do have a lot of young kids from Harvard. And a lot of women.
Why do they want to become newspaper people?
I don’t know. Ten years ago the answer to that was Woodward and Bernstein. It’s still the most exciting business there is. I mean, what the hell would you do if you weren’t in the newspaper business? I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know who’d hire me, either. And I don’t know what I’d be good at except maybe chopping wood.
Are papers better today because you’re hiring better people?
Yes, higher standards, better-educated reporters. Have you ever heard the really wonderful story of the first background briefing ever given in the United States? It’s Eddie Folliard’s story. Eddie was the White House reporter for the Washington Post , a Pulitzer Prize winner. He told me this, I guess back in the forties. He said it occurred the day the United States went off the gold standard, which was March of 1933. Steve Early was Roosevelt’s press secretary, and he called the entire White House press corps together, twelve people—eleven men and May Craig from Portland, Maine—and said that he had a very important announcement, that the United States was going off the gold standard. So these people all went to their typewriters and sat down and threaded them and tapped out a lead that was some variant of “in a move that shook the economic capitals of the world today, the United States went off the gold standard, period, paragraph.” And they sat there and they rubbed their hands, and they looked at their typewriters and they looked at each other and they looked at the typewriters again and realized they didn’t know whether it was good or whether it was bad. And one by one they sidled up to Early and said, “Steve, you know we need a little help on this. ” So they trotted out some faceless mole from the Bureau of the Budget, who in effect wrote that story. Today, among the people you would send to the White House would be a handful of Ph. D.’s in economics. There would be people who had written economics textbooks.
Can their editors understand?
I think that’s a real problem. I took Economics A at Harvard, and I probably got a C, and that’s the only economics course I ever took. But I have learned at Hobart Rowen’s feet, man and boy, since 1957, for twenty-five years, and I know enough to keep out of trouble. I know enough to call a pro in. That’s just one of the great problems, and editors have got to know a little bit about a whole lot of things. And you’ve got to know when you’re over your head.
Do you think that press freedoms and liberties are imperiled?
I really don’t know. I look at the years I’ve been in the business, and I can’t say that. I can remember that when this chief of police threw me downstairs in Manchester, New Hampshire, my freedom was imperiled. That hasn’t happened since. I didn’t think my freedom was imperiled when we were engaged in a mortal struggle with the President of the United States. I’m goddamn glad we didn’t lose it, though. I think my freedom to find another job would have been exquisite.
You never had any doubts that the Supreme Court was going to uphold you on the Pentagon Papers?
I had doubts. But I didn’t see how they could permit prior restraint.
Do you ever worry about the First Amendment?
Yeah. Sure I do. I worry about it all the time. I worry about the excesses of the press too. I worry about how some people scream “First Amendment” awfully fast, it seems to me.
Well, what are our First Amendment rights to print absolutely anything?
Well, I can’t give you details on this. I’ve got one story that I’m struggling with right now, in which the Post has knowledge of something that I don’t think we have any right to know.
CIA. And our First Amendment rights are such, as I understand them, that we can publish it. I don’t know of any law that says we can’t.
Are you going to publish it?
We decided not to.
Because I think you have to serve some useful social purpose by publishing something.
Other than its just being interesting?
And this particular fact is interesting?
It’s goddamn well interesting. Oh, yes, it is.
But it isn’t going to further the cause of mankind?
I think it would set mankind back.
Would it blow us up?
Well, that makes me sound too heroic. I don’t know. But it’s a very important thing, and it could lead to things that could lead to other things that could blow us up.
Would you print details of how to make an atom bomb?
I don’t see what the social purpose of that is. I suppose if I could go to a library and find such information in a book, and if I were trying to prove what an asinine rule it was to forbid such publication, then there might be some social purpose.
If printed it, just for some dumb reason—I just found out and I printed it—would you defend me?
No, I have a great deal of trouble with the Progressive magazine story [about how to build a bomb].
Would you defend me, though?
Well, you’re a buddy. I’d probably defend you, yeah.
What about the Carol Burnett libel suit against the National Enquirer [in which she claimed to have been defamed by a false story and won a huge judgment, now being appealed]?
I was on the National Enquirer’s side. But I’m not very comfortable there. I think one of the worst magazines I ever saw was Hustler , but I’d never seen it until its publisher, Larry Flynt, was sued for something. I bought a copy because of the suit when somebody said to me, “Have you ever read that goddamn magazine?” I thought it was perfectly god-awful, and whatever trouble Flynt was in seemed to me to be ridiculous. You know, I’ve only got so many good fights in me, and I would like to concentrate on things that I really care a helluva lot about. I care a helluva lot about the First Amendment but not a lot about Larry Flynt or Hustler . I don’t know Larry Flynt. And Carol Burnett I rather like. I met her once, and I thought she was neat, but I think that hers was a bad suit.
It could harm the Washington Post?
If it spread.
If it set a precedent.
There’s one case that I do worry about. I think there has been a deterioration in the laws of libel. We’ve still got a multimillion-dollar libel suit against us from Bebe Rebozo. I’m about to be deposed in that suit next week, yet that’s something that’s got to be ten years old.
What worries you most about the American press in general?
Owners who don’t have a commitment to quality.
And what can be done about it?
I don’t know. I always thought that a great, sort of strange offshoot of Watergate was that it might prove to publishers that investigative reporting and the taking on of the Establishment could be financially successful.
And do you think that the ultimate goal for a publisher is that something will be financially successful?
You’ve just had a son. Will there be newspapers around when he’s ready to enter the real world?
I can’t help but think so, though maybe I’m beginning to deceive myself. I think that newspapers may look different, but people will always want to read hard copy. You can’t Xerox television, and you can’t memorize what the radio or television announcer tells you, so people will always want to study the details and to read the ads. No question about that. But if a person is looking for a 1972 blue Mustang with whitewalls, and if he can type that into his computer and come up with three such Mustangs for sale in the Washington area, that would scare me if I were running the classified ad department.
Bernard Nossiter once said, “The Post and Brazil are a lot alike. They both have a lot of potential.” What I want to know is, Does Brazil still have a lot of potential? Does the Post still have a lot of potential?
Well, Bud Nossiter is now covering the United Nations for the New York Times but not because he said that. The great challenge of an editor is to get the newspaper to work at 100 percent. And any editor who says he’s at 100 percent is lying. I am the luckiest guy alive. I came to the Post at exactly the right time, at a time when its financial position was secure and at a time when the new owner, Katharine, had convinced herself you have to spend some money to get better. I think my editorial budget doubled in something like a year or two, and it is now perhaps ten times what it was seventeen years ago. Now if you go to a newspaper that’s operating at 50 percent capacity, I would think that you could get it to 85 in a year with a little money and a little energy and a little courage. Then I think that it will take you five years to get it to 87 and ten years to get to 90 and maybe twenty years to get to 95. So the potential is still there. I don’t know if there’s ever been a day when I looked at the newspaper and said, “Goddamn it, that’s the best we can do. It just can’t get any better than that. It can’t get any better written. It can’t get any better printed. It can’t get any better designed. It can’t get any better conceived.” I don’t think I’ve ever done that. I sure as hell have seen some issues that, on a breaking story, a tough story, made me say, “Son of a bitch, there it is, a good newspaper—”a good first draft of history.’ ” And there are some issues that made me say, “Oh, ————! How could I have done that?”
What’s your biggest professional regret?
You know, it sounds decadent, but I don’t think I’ve got any. I would have loved not to have gone through the Janet Cooke ordeal. But on the scale of ups, that is a barely measurable down, and I learned something from that experience.
What are you proudest of?
Of getting the paper as close to its potential as it is. Every day it’s a pretty good newspaper, and it’s got a helluva home field. It’s a good franchise. The morning paper in the capital of the free world.
What would you do if you weren’t in this business?
I’d like to be Lanny Budd. Have you ever read the Upton Sinclair novels about Lanny Budd? He’s the journalist’s Walter Mitty. The President of the United States calls him up and says, “Lanny, I’m in a real jam. Would you go to this country.…” And that’s the book. Lanny drops his newspaper job and goes over and settles things in some obscure African country.
Walter Lippmann did that.
Nobody’s done what I’m talking about. Ed Williams and I had a fantasy of doing this at one point. That we’d both quit our jobs and work as a team.
Journalist-mercenaries dedicated to the good?
Yeah, go up to Boston and settle the school strike. And then settle some other job and go over to the Falklands.
Fantasies aside, if you had the whole newspaper game to do over again, would you?
I would do it so fast! I wonder what took me so long, till I was sixteen, when I got my first job as a copy boy.