Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Ben Bradlee Documentary Shows How To Create A Fearless Newsroom Culture

Posted by Tom Foremski - December 6, 2017


Above, still from the film, Ben Bradlee talking about newspapers being allowed “ go about our business. Which is not to be loved …but to go after the truth.” 

The Ben Bradlee documentary on HBO is fascinating for its inside-the-newsroom stories of building a defiantly aggressive news reporting culture at the Washington Post. It’s a culture that’s become pervasive and its creation story continues to serve as an inspiration for every reporter when times get tough.

When Ben Bradlee ran the Washington Post he was fearless in taking on US Presidents Johnson and Nixon but that wasn’t the case with fellow Bostonian Kennedy.

He was unable to reconcile his role as a tough reporter on the Washington beat *and* being extremely close friends with JFK. Bradlee and his wife Toni were John and Jackie’s closest friends. The documentary shows numerous photos and home videos of all four boating, golfing and partying.

Being inside Camelot was glamorous. But there was a dark side. The film reveals that Bradlee’s wife Toni was “seriously assaulted” by JFK as she tried to lock herself into a Ladies room during a drunken boat party. She told her husband but the Bradlees continued their friendship with the President.

Bradlee had by this time honed an unassailable position as a hard hitting reporter. JFK’s assualt on Toni Bradlee sounds like a scoop to me — Bradlee was running Newsweek. But in those days private lives were private — especially when your pals are running important things. Bradlee was the establishment.

Bradlee certainly redeemed his fearless reporter image following Kennedy’s assassination. He has been lauded and recognized for decades of legendary work at the Washington Post.

And Henry Kissinger still lives! He makes several appearance and has some choice words to say about the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers which faced huge opposition from the government and judiciary and revealed top secret information much as with Edward Snowden’s leak.

Bradlee with full support from the Post’s owner Katharine Graham stood by his guns fighting the courts for the right for newspapers to publish in the public interest.

“No politician can tell you what to read. It’s as simple as that.”

Kissinger says in a growl, “Indubitably, the point had to be made.” 

The point had to be made against an incredibly dramatic backdrop. No matter the popularity of the revelation or not — governments cannot restrict the public’s right to critical information relevant to informing the democratic process.

Garbage in — garbage out. We need accurate information to make the right decisions. And we have a lot of important decisions to make these days. It has been an incredibly important legal and moral precedent.

Ironically: Nixon’s hatred of the media, his enemies list and his attempts to lie and suppress the story of Watergate served to energize and boost the reputation of the media.

Nixon was relentlessly pursued by Bradlee’s news teams. They owned that story. And Bradlee’s refusal to back down — or slow down even during the Washington Post’s IPO(!) — helped boost the trust and reputation of all newspapers — even the ones not called the Washington Post.

His aggressive newsroom culture still stands today. Every newsroom reporter knows what Ben Bradlee would do.

I’ll certainly watch it again. The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

Here’s a trailer:

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