I can thank (or blame, depending on your perspective) Ben Bradlee, someone I never met, for my entrance into the world of newspapers.
Mr. Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, died last week. For those too young to remember, he and Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, took on big government and the Richard Nixon administration when they fought to publish the Pentagon Papers and pursue the Watergate scandal.
Mr. Bradlee was, in a large measure, responsible for the high regard and reputation journalists were experiencing when I was a high school senior. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go in life and originally wanted to become a high school English teacher. My mother, a teacher’s aide, told me that I wouldn’t be able to find a job and that I should become a newspaper reporter instead. So I did.
This decision was more crucial to my life than I gave it credit for at the time. I love to share learning, but I realize, as I look back, that the raging hormones and teenage angst dripping from the halls of the average high school would have sent me screaming to the oblivion of a good bottle of rum.
I loved working for a newspaper and, when I became senior news editor then managing editor of a local weekly chain, I found myself in occupational nirvana. I had a job that let me write, design pages, edit the writing of others, manage a staff of full- and part-time reporters and photographers, interact with public officials, and talk with all kinds of people. The hours were long, the pay was low, and we worked like crazy people to put it all together each week. But the newspaper work was fun. Every day was a new adventure, and every week we put out quality work.
Barbara S. Rivette, my mentor and former executive editor, is a Syracuse University School of Journalism graduate who knew and hobnobbed with many leading journalists. She never met Mr. Bradlee, but closely watched the developments at the Post throughout the 1970s. His ethics are her ethics.
Although we never had ethical or legal dilemmas the scope of which Mr. Bradlee and Ms. Graham faced, we still had some newsroom clashes over journalistic integrity. Ever present was the issue of the public’s right to know weighed against the right of individual privacy. Although local town, village, and school boards couldn’t hide behind “national security,” they often tried to cloak their activities in executive sessions.
As time and technology progressed, the nature and economics of print journalism have changed. Newspapers have stopped printing daily, opting for electronic editions; the need for writers and editors has diminished; typesetters, proofreaders, and page strippers have vanished; and the driving force today is how fast an organization can get the story on the web. Speed is becoming more important than accuracy; excellence is measured by hits instead of the quality of the content.
Mr. Bradlee’s brand of journalistic integrity seems to be falling prey to a world that ignores individual privacy and is more concerned with getting the story out than getting it right. An era of bright and shining journalism is fading like the tangy smell of printer’s ink.
R.I.P., Mr. Bradlee; thanks for a great run.