What Ben Bradlee taught me about Washington journalism

I was hired as a junior editor at the Washington Post in September 1992, one year after Ben Bradlee retired. The man still prowled the newsroom, and, as one one attendee (I won’t say mourner) at his R-rated funeral service in Washington yesterday said, “As an actor, he was straight out of Central Casting. He was obvious. But he had cast himself in a pretty good role.”

Over the years, I edited some pieces by his wife, Sally Quinn, and I got to know Ben in passing. In a perceptive review of Bradlee’s memoirs for The New Republic, Michael Lewis parsed the substance and schtick that made the man. He was a jaunty editor whose courage in publishing the Pentagon Papers and pursuing the Watergate story did not mean that he harbored any deep desire to challenge or change the power centers of the capital. He embodied the journalist as Washington insider, even he relished his public image as the ultimate crusading outsider editor.

Bradlee

Ben Bradlee

I didn’t begrudge the man his contradictions. He was a big in every sense and impossible to dislike. He played the insider game, and he often played it to the advantage of his reporters and the Washington Post Company. Sometimes he played it at the expense of his readers. Dangerously honest, he was not, at least not often, in print. As Michael Lewis asked, “How dangerously honest can you be and still remain cozy with the in-crowd?”

The ‘JFK’ Bender

The influence of insiderism was evident in the culture of the newsroom I joined. The newspaper, under Bradlee’s leadership, had just gone on an extraordinary bender against Academy Award winning director Oliver Stone for making the movie “JFK.” Stone’s all-too-believable depiction of the assassination of President Kennedy as the work of his enemies in the Pentagon and CIA offended almost everyone in the Post newsroom. I must have heard it a hundred times in my first year at the Post: Stone was “awful.” He was “irresponsible.” He was (disgusted sigh), a “conspiracy theorist.”

When I first heard Bradlee  dismiss of Stone as a “kook” in a newsroom gossip session, it would have been easy to echo him. Bradlee, after all, had been a close friend of John Kennedy. He prided himself on no-bullshit explanations, and he had authority. But like most reporters. I wanted to ask a question. At a Post cocktail party I screwed up my courage and asked Bradlee about the events of November 22, 1963: What did he make of the eyewitness testimony that President Kennedy was struck by gunfire from two different directions?

This was in the mid-1990s, more than 30 years after the crime. I did not know the facts of the case very well, and I wanted to get his take on the evidence.

I was surprised to see this lion of a man shrivel in discomfort, even display a moment of vulnerability. Then he looked mighty pissed off.

“Ya can’t believe earwitness testimony,” he snorted.

“Not always,” I agreed. “But isn’t it weird that the Warren Commission never interviewed some of them.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“They couldn’t interview every kook on the street,” he growled, waving at the air.

That word again: “Kook.” That seemed like a prejudicial way to talk about the ordinary people in Dallas who said what they saw and heard that terrible day in Dealey Plaza.

(When I later interviewed some of these witnesses, none of them was a “kook.” There were some people whose accounts had changed over the years. Some were more credible than others. Most were reticent, not kooky, on the conspiracy question. I found the most credible Dealey Plaza witnesses, Bill and Gayle Newman, a retired plumber and his wife, are trustworthy, salt of the earth people whom you would like to have as your neighbors. For Bradlee to label them “kooks” was careless at best and a telling symptom of how insiderism could affect his news judgment.)

My questions tested the outer limits of Bradlee’s legendarily short attention span, and I changed the subject.

I came away from the party with an unsettling realization: Ben Bradlee really didn’t know how his friend Jack Kennedy came to be shot dead in broad daylight better than any better than anyone else. He wasn’t even comfortable talking about the contested facts of how his pal was murdered.

Yet he scoffed at JFK “conspiracy theorists,” and most of the newsroom scoffed with him.

The Perils of Insiderism

Bradlee, of course, was the Post but his attitude seemed oddly un-Washington Post to me. Sure there were stupid conspiracy theories out there, and they deserved to be ignored. But what about the usual process by which editors and reporters unlock a big story? We theorized all the time at the Post about news stories in the constant effort to understand the story and report it credibly. Why did this happen? Why did she say that? Where was the money going?

Redford and Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein

Conspiracy theorists at work

“Woodward and Bernstein were conspiracy theorists, for god’s sake,” said Jeffrey Frank, a colleague who went on to become an editor at the New Yorker, and who was exasperated by the newsroom sniping at Oliver Stone.

That sounded right to me. In their coverage of a third-rate burglary at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in June 1972, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein intuited a covert effort to violate the law, in a word: a conspiracy. While the pundits and the president’s men pooh-poohed the idea, Woodstein followed their theory that senior White House officials were conspiring against the public interest — and the facts they uncovered proved their theory was right.

That’s why they were heroes to me, and demi-gods of the profession. They were (at least in their prime) not insider journalists but outsiders. And Ben Bradlee, the insider, had the good sense to protect them. (In reality, it wasn’t quite as simple as depicted in “All the President’s Men.” Bradlee’s unsung deputies, Howard Simon and Larry Stern, deserved more credit than the legend gives them.) In any case, the tension between the paper’s insiderish and outsiderish impulses was central to the Watergate triumph.

Yet one thing that was not going to happen in the newsroom that Ben Bradlee built was the application of standard investigative reporting techniques to the JFK assassination story, despite the fact that the events of November 1963 are of enduring interest to a mass audience.

Aside from some good straight news reportage by George Lardner (such as “Archive Photos Not of JFK’s Brain Concludes Aide to Review Board” and “Study Backs Theory of ‘Grassy Knoll’), the tenor of the Post’s coverage during the reign of Bradlee and his heirs reliably reflected the consensus of journalistic insiders like Bradlee (and Chris Matthews and Dan Rather and Anthony Lewis and George Will).

Many insider journalists embraced the official theory of lone gunman (while other insiders, like LBJ, RFK, and Jackie Kennedy did not). Above all the insiders disdained the outsiders (like Oliver Stone or New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison) who had the temerity to question the rickety story of a lone gunman as constructed by the FBI, airbrushed by the CIA, and solidified by the Warren Commission.

The Post’s unseemly assault on Stone was not Bradlee’s finest hour. Indeed, with all due affection, I would say it was one of the paper’s worst performances, though I never said that to his face.

“The reporters Ben hired were the toughest he could find,” said former Post publisher Don Graham at  Bradlee’s funeral. “And that meant they were the toughest critics of Ben himself. That was fine with him”

Bradlee didn’t hire me, and I wasn’t one of his toughest critics. When he razzed me about being a conspiracy theorist, I thought of him as just another hearty hack who had dropped the habit of fact-checking in retirement. (I had never published or defended a JFK conspiracy theory.) I didn’t mind. I aspired to be a hearty hack, just like him. I told him I was headed to Roswell to do an Area 51 story, and he laughed.

I figured I would wait until the time was right to tell him what I really thought.

 

———————-

Don Graham on Ben Bradlee:

 

17 comments

  1. lysias says:

    He was a jaunty man whose courage in publishing the Pentagon Papers and pursuing the Watergate story mean that he had any deep desire to challenge the power centers of the capital.

    Something missing in that sentence. Possibly “do not”?

  2. So Jeff, if you approved of the movie “JFK” (which you just called an “all-too-believable depiction of the assassination of President Kennedy”) do you approve of the Garrison investigation?

    Since Stone glorified Garrison, I don’t see how you could approve of the movie without approving of Garrison.

    • lysias says:

      Since Stone glorified Garrison, I don’t see how you could approve of the movie without approving of Garrison.

      That doesn’t follow at all. It would certainly be possible to believe that a prosecutor was overzealous and flouted the law in pursuing a correct case. Or, even if Garrison was wrong about Clay Shaw having been involved in the assassination conspiracy, you might still think he had done more good than harm by exposing to the American public the severe weaknesses of the Warren Commission’s version of events.

    • kevin johnson says:

      I approve of the Garrison investigation … just not the part about the CIA infiltrating and sabotaging it.

      • I approve of the Garrison investigation … just not the part about the CIA infiltrating and sabotaging it.

        You need to post some evidence of that. “Garrison said so” is not evidence. Neither is “Gaeton Fonzi said so.”

  3. Jonathan says:

    My take on Ben Bradlee is simple: he avoided the JFK assassination because he knew it was too hot a potato, and he reveled in the Watergate reporting because he was in bed with the CIA and the CIA wanted to get rid of Nixon (as Jim Hougan describes in “Secret Agenda”).

  4. Pat Speer says:

    Not to answer for Jeff, John, but I find the movie JFK more agreeable than Garrison. If one watches JFK divorced from the thought you’re supposed to be rooting for Costner/Garrison, in fact, one can view it as a journey into madness, whereby an earnest but attention-loving DA gets sucked into an alternate world where white is black and black is white. It’s kind of like a real-life Alice in Wonderland, from which there can be no return. In other words, one needn’t agree with Garrison (or Stone) and accept that Wonderland was “real” to appreciate the movie.

    IMO, the backlash against JFK had nothing to do with whether it accurately depicted Garrison’s investigation, or not. The backlash was fueled by two concerns: 1) that young people watching the movie might think there was a conspiracy, and 2) that there actually was a conspiracy. This last point is demonstrated, moreover, by the (now strange) claim contained in most every critique of the movie: that its central premise–that JFK would never have expanded our involvement in Vietnam to the levels approved by LBJ–was ridiculous.

    Well, guess what, what was once “ridiculous” is now the historical consensus. Stone was right. His critics (on this point at least) were wrong.

    Now, does that mean there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy? Absolutely not. But it does support that Stone’s critics in Washington and the media suffered then (and possibly still suffer) from a cognitive dissonance when it comes to the assassination.

    Let’s take, for example, Chris Matthews. Chris Matthews chats on and on about his two spiritual Godfathers, fellow Irishmen Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Tip O’Neill. Well, Moynihan and O’Neill went to their graves believing the Warren Commission investigation was inadequate, and that a conspiracy remained a reasonable possibility.

    And yet Matthews claims that his position as an insider makes it clear to him it’s ridiculous to believe there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. What? So his Godfathers were idiots?

    • Well, guess what, what was once “ridiculous” is now the historical consensus.

      Actually no, unless you are reading mostly conspiracy oriented stuff.

      But the real issue is not whether Kennedy would have expanded the war (nobody can really know) but whether by November 1963 he had decided to bug out and let the Communists take over. He clearly had not.

      one can view it as a journey into madness, whereby an earnest but attention-loving DA gets sucked into an alternate world where white is black and black is white. It’s kind of like a real-life Alice in Wonderland, from which there can be no return.

      That’s not what Stone had in mind, and not what most viewers would come away with.

      I think you say that because you do understand the madness of the Garrison investigation. But most viewers would not.

      • Jonathan says:

        John,

        Because I’m not a student of the Garrison investigation, I ask that you explain why the investigation was madness.

        I’ve read most of “Destiny Betrayed” and “A Farewell to Justice” as well as Garrison’s Playboy interview. As prosecutors go, Garrison appears to me to have been quite reasonable and rational.

      • bogman says:

        Whatever the issues with the Garrison case, without it we would not have had Oliver Stone’s movie. Without the movie, we would not have had the government release so many files.

        If you like transparency in the JFK assassination, Garrison was the spark that started it.

      • Pat Speer says:

        John McAdams: But the real issue is not whether Kennedy would have expanded the war (nobody can really know) but whether by November 1963 he had decided to bug out and let the Communists take over. He clearly had not.

        Pat Speer: your response represents a classic error in critical thinking, John. It’s called a False Dilemma. By limiting the selection to two alternatives, you fix the results. But that’s not the way history actually works, John. In the real world JFK had many options, including building up the South Vietnamese as best he could, and then backing off to see if they could stand on their own. Y’know, the way most reasonable people would do…

        But no, a privileged elite, no longer in the majority, continue to pretend that it’s reasonable to assume JFK would have propped up South Vietnam, even if it meant bombing civilians and alienating the third world, even if it meant destroying his party’s domestic agenda, even if it meant destroying the morale of an entire generation… and that’s beyond loopy, beyond bizarre. It’s like saying “You never know, JFK might have bombed Castro if he thought he had missiles,” when we know he had the opportunity to do so, and did not.

        • Pat Speer: your response represents a classic error in critical thinking, John. It’s called a False Dilemma.

          No, Pat, if somebody wants to claim that Kennedy was killed because he had decided to pull out of Vietnam and let the Communists take over in the South, then need to show that he had actually decided that at the time the supposed plot was hatched.

          Of course, people in thrall of Camelot are sure Kennedy would not have escalated the way Johnson did. In reality, it’s not possible to know.

          You really need to look at what Bobby said:

          http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/vietnam.htm

          But no, a privileged elite, no longer in the majority, continue to pretend that it’s reasonable to assume JFK would have propped up South Vietnam,

          In fact, Kennedy was doing that, although we can never know how far he would have persisted if things went sour.

          As for “privileged elite:” Kennedy was part of the privileged elite!

  5. anonymous says:

    jeffmorley: “That’s why they were heroes to me, and demi-gods of the profession. They were (at least in their prime) not insider journalists but outsiders. ”

    Russ Baker takes Woodward to task with a bit of cognitive dissonance – not the iconic Woodward of legend —so it takes a while for this notion to settle in the mind:

    “Woodward, top secret Naval officer, gets sent to work in the Nixon White House while still on military duty. Then, with no journalistic credentials to speak of, and with a boost from White House staffers, he lands a job at the Washington Post. Not long thereafter he starts to take down Richard Nixon. Meanwhile, Woodward’s military bosses are running a spy ring inside the White House that is monitoring Nixon and Kissinger’s secret negotiations with America’s enemies (China, Soviet Union, etc), stealing documents and funneling them back to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    That’s not the iconic Woodward of legend, of course—so it takes a while for this notion to settle in the mind. But there’s more—and it’s even more troubling. Did you know there was really no Deep Throat, that the Mark Felt story was conjured up as yet another layer of cover in what became a daisy chain of disinformation? Did you know that Richard Nixon was loathed and feared by the military brass, that they and their allies were desperate to get Nixon out and halt his rapprochement with the Communists? That a bunch of operatives with direct or indirect CIA/military connections, from E. Howard Hunt to Alexander Butterfield to John Dean—wormed their way into key White House posts, and started up the Keystone Kops operations that would be laid at Nixon’s office door?

    Believe me, I understand. It sounds like the “conspiracy theory” stuff that we have been trained to dismiss. But I’ve just spent five years on a heavily documented forensic dig into this missing strata of American history, and I myself have had to come to terms with the enormous gap between reality and the “reality” presented by the media and various establishment gatekeepers who tell us what’s what.

    Given this complicity, it’s no surprise that when it comes to Woodward’s latest work, the myth-making machine is on auto pilot. The public, of course, will end up as confused and manipulated as ever. And so things will continue, same as they ever were. Endless war, no substantive reforms. Unless we wake up to our own victimhood. ”

    See:
    http://whowhatwhy.com/2010/09/30/obamas-wars-the-real-story-bob-woodward-wont-tell/

  6. anonymous says:

    “The Post’s unseemly assault on Stone was not Bradlee’s finest hour. Indeed, with all due affection, I would say it was one of the paper’s worst performances”

    Another one of the paper’s bad performances was WPost’s Slimy Assault on Gary Webb:
    http://consortiumnews.com/2014/10/18/wposts-slimy-assault-on-gary-webb/

    Robert Parry also writes about how the Washington Press turned bad:
    http://consortiumnews.com/2014/10/28/how-the-washington-press-turned-bad/

    But was it ever good? Carl Bernstein might say no:
    http://www.carlbernstein.com/magazine_cia_and_media.php

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