The Magazine

A Celebrated Editor

The curious case of Benjamin Bradlee

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Here, for example, is Himmelman’s take on the aftermath of the Janet Cooke affair, a true debacle and, unmentioned by the author, an almost inevitable outgrowth of the fact that the identity of Woodward’s source was never revealed to Bradlee until after Nixon resigned. Cooke was a Post reporter who invented a story about a child heroin addict, her sources never identified, questioned, or verified before publication. It won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize, which, when the jig was up and the enormity of the fabrication discovered, had to be given back. The Post immediately deployed a kindhearted ombudsman, Bill Green, to examine what went wrong. (Evidently, not much: “The Post is one of the very few great enterprises in journalism, and everybody associated with it ought to be proud of it,” was the astonishing conclusion. “Green, you ungrateful son-of-a-bitch, I salute you,” Bradlee commented on finishing the piece, doubtless with considerable relief.)

“That was one for the ages. It ranks high among my private treasures,” the ombudsman later wrote to Bradlee. Himmelman allows this particular treasure to pass untarnished—evidently without realizing, or at least without mentioning, that the Washington Star, significantly, was the first to report on the fabrication.

But aside from the fearful neglect of editors (Bradlee included) in failing to check the unbridled imagination of a new, untried reporter, there were other issues at the Post, unmentioned by Himmelman. Quinn committed a grievous error in 1979, reporting that President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, had unzipped his fly in front of a female journalist (he had not). The newspaper had to retract Quinn’s claim after its terrified editors were summoned to the White House the following day. In other words, the very employees who had been pretty much cornered, nudged into accepting without challenge all the aperçus of a favored reporter, found their heads on the chopping block.

And there were other problems, as serious but more general. No one ever expected the Post to top the days of its Watergate revelations. But there was a general feeling, always, that it should be doing something new and challenging—an ambition Bradlee referred to, however obliquely, when I said goodbye to him on quitting the Post for its local rival, the Star, which had offered me a political column.

“They’ll never read you in New York City, kid,” were the editor’s parting words. And they surprised me—not because Bradlee had just dashed whatever hopes I cherished that everyone in New York would be aching to read my columns in the Star, but because no one I knew in New York, outside of a few journalists who skimmed it occasionally, actually read the Washington Post. Bradlee had had his chance to make the Post a national paper, and he had blown it. Simons, the managing editor, had a horror of going national, but Simons could easily be overridden by Bradlee, and often was. Bradlee could do as he pleased. The problem was not simply that he no longer appeared to know what was best; the problem was that he had instincts without vision.

Of course, now that the Post is online, things have changed. People read it—for free. And that brings me to my final point, one that Himmelman never mentions: With every passing day the Post, the daily edition, grows more and more anorexic and malnourished. It contains little that is new, astonishing, or memorable. The writing is often poor. Its average daily circulation numbers have dropped by more than 42,000 since the beginning of this year. Its Sunday edition is down more than 15 percent. Since 2003, two years after Bradlee’s departure, there have been five buyouts, and it now has a publisher, a granddaughter of Katharine Graham, who thought it a good idea to charge lobbyists thousands of dollars in admission to her soirées where they could meet and impress Post reporters at her home.

The sadness of this is not that none of this had to happen—almost certainly it did have to happen—but that the decline began with Benjamin Bradlee, long before the Internet moved in and gobbled up print. The triumph and the tragedy were both Bradlee’s. And the Post’s decline began much earlier than its rivals’, at first imperceptibly, and then markedly. 

What makes me most unhappy these days, as I glance at the Post, is that after glancing at it, I move on. And so does everyone else.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.