- Historic Sites
“the First Rough Draft Of History”
… 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.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Since Watergate the notoriety of the’Post’ has just blown out of all proportion. It intrudes on the process, and I don’t think that’s good.
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.