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“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
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.
When the best newspapers in America are discussed, it doesn’t seem to me that chain papers lead all the rest.
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.