Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee’s Other Virtue | Commentary
When Benjamin C. Bradlee was a young reporter in 1950s Washington, the District was a Jim Crow town. Black journalists were discouraged from covering Congress and the White House until 1944 when Harry S. McAlpin broke the color line and was grudgingly accepted by peers. By 1947, a handful of black press journalists were credentialed by the congressional press galleries and the State Department. One of them, Ethel Payne of the Chicago Defender, famously annoyed President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the white male press corps for asking pointed questions at news conferences.
Members of Congress and other players of official Washington must have noticed the sea change. Today’s District of Columbia is culturally transformed. Members of Congress have had to adjust their attitudes and get used to questions from journalists of color, many of them affiliated with the Washington Post. Kevin Merida, managing editor of the Washington Post and second in command, is an African-American.
These changes define the other story about Bradlee, 93, who died on Oct. 21 and is arguably the greatest American newspaper editor of the late 20th century. Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, is a pop-culture icon because of his courageous pursuit of the 1970s Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
More daring was Bradlee’s decision in 1971 to resume publication of the Pentagon Papers, embarrassing government documents about a secret Indochina war, that the federal courts forbid the New York Times from publishing. Bradlee and his publisher Katharine Graham defied the lower court and on appeal the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the duo.
Bradlee tested press freedoms with the highest courts and he battled politicians too. Bradlee dispatched his reporters to unearth corruption, lies and conflicts of interest. When elected officials and bureaucrats complained, Bradlee was the buffer between the afflicted and his news gatherers. “Just get it right,” Bradlee warned his notebook- and pen-toting watchdogs.
Bradlee, who managed the Post newsroom from 1965 to 1991, was also an industry trailblazer in terms of promoting racially diversity in the news business. His hiring decisions occurred as the Post ascended from Washington’s second-best daily (the defunct Washington Star was No. 1) to the media juggernaut as we know it today.
Earl Caldwell, professor and writer-in-residence at Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, said his colleague, native New Yorker Robert C. Maynard, was hired at a small daily in Central Pennsylvania and then was introduced to Bradlee. Within days, said Caldwell, Bradlee hired Maynard, who would go on to become a Washington Post national correspondent and later was the newspaper’s ombudsman.
Three of the 44 founders of the National Association of Black Journalists — founded in 1975 — worked at the Post. Joel Dreyfuss and Leon Dash worked there in the 1970s; Joe Davidson currently writes the newspaper’s Federal Diary column.
Despite his efforts, Bradlee’s relations with minority journalists were not always glorious. In 1972, seven African-American staff members sued the Washington Post for racial discrimination regarding opportunities and promotions. The group, known as the Metro Seven, won a settlement in their EEOC.
It was noteworthy that this case occurred a handful of years before other major news organizations, including the New York Times and Newsweek (the latter a former Washington Post company) faced race and gender lawsuits.
What is widely considered the biggest mark on Bradlee’s record also occurred as a result of his ongoing quest to build a dynamic and racially diverse newsroom. Bradlee hired Janet Cooke, the reporter who wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a shocking story of an 8-year-old African-American boy who was injected with heroin by the mother’s boyfriend.
Cooke’s story was questioned by several skeptical black journalists at the Post. But Cooke, who claimed to be a Vassar graduate who studied in Paris, was supported by Bob Woodward, half of the Woodward-Carl Bernstein team of Watergate lore.
Cooke’s story won a Pulitzer Prize. However within days, the celebration turned into scandal. Cooke’s story was a hoax.
Bradlee returned the Pulitzer and tasked the newspaper’s ombudsman to investigate what went wrong. At that time of the “Jimmy’s World” fiasco pundits predicted that news outlets would stop hiring journalists of color and point to Cooke’s disgrace.
That did not happen at the Post. Bradlee and his management team did not waver; they continued to recruit and cultivate talent.
Bradlee, lionized as a crusading editor, should also be remembered for setting the national tone in diversifying the daily news media.
Wayne Dawkins is an associate professor in the Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. He is also NABJ historian.
An earlier version of this article misspelled Ben Bradlee’s name.