Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters who should know, say the late Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee’s general theory of newspapering and life was: “Nose down, ass up and moving steadily forward into the future.” Bradlee died on Oct. 21 at age 93, leaving quite a legacy as editor of the newspaper of the nation’s capital: The Washington Post. Key to his legacy, of course, was the newspaper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal – which was spearheaded by Woodward and Bernstein and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. That may have been the high, but Bradlee also saw the lows. The Janet Cooke scandal in 1980, for instance. Cooke wrote a compelling, heart-wrenching piece about an 8-year-old heroin addict. The piece won a Pulitzer Prize, but turned out to have been largely fabricated.
That all happened a long time ago and a long way from Fort Worth. But Neil Foote, principal lecturer at the University of North Texas’ Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism, knew and worked for Bradlee at the Post from 1986 to 1990. “My direct encounters were few and far between,” says Foote, who was hired from the Miami Herald to cover real estate news for the paper. Foote was there when much of the Maryland and Virginia farmland and countryside transformed itself into suburbs, sometimes with more than a little acrimony.
He recalls his first Bradlee meeting: “On the day I interviewed with him, I waited nervously outside his office. When he came out, he was chatting with Katharine Graham [the Post’s publisher and another legend]. At the end of my job interview with him, he looked at me, and in his matter-of-fact style, he said, ‘Well, you sound like a good kid. You want to work here?’” Foote did and says he learned three valuable lessons working under Bradlee. I think they apply to any workplace, not just the newsroom:
•Command respect – “No matter where he would go, he never wavered when it came to the newspaper’s commitment to doing great journalism,” Foote says. “Every person in the newsroom – no matter what his or her role was – knew that he or she each played a role in commanding respect from readers, sources and the powers that be that the newspaper was holding accountable. Bradlee sent a message that the way you look, act and live your life commands respect from everyone.”
•Competition breeds excellence – Foote recalls hearing that Bradlee had said he “liked to slip on a little blood” every morning when he walked into the newsroom. “I never confirmed whether this was true. It didn’t matter,” Foote says. “Everyone in the newsroom knew that to survive at The Washington Post, you needed to have a thick skin, sharp elbows and an undying curiosity for news – whether it was a brief for inside Metro or a front-page story unveiling the wrongdoings of an elected official or business executive. As a reporter, you were competing against each other in the newsroom, and against other media – locally and nationally – to do great journalism. No excuses.”
• Don’t let the bozos drag you down – “Ben Bradlee surrounded himself with the best journalists he could find; he didn’t make any excuses for actively recruiting and hiring reporters who had graduated from Ivy League universities,” Foote says. Bradlee himself was a Harvard grad, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t look beyond the ivy walls for talent. “At the same time, he recruited the best journalists from newspapers around the country,” Foote says. “He had editors who pushed reporters to their limits. You worked as many hours as it took to get the story as complete as possible. You knew as a reporter that the more a source refused to return your call or didn’t answer your questions directly, the more you dug in to find more sources to get the story”. Foote says Bradlee “represented the kind of journalism that every news organization needs to rekindle. There were no shortcuts – just good, old-fashioned reporting and writing that set the bar high for every journalist and every media organization.”