The Washington Post became a great newspaper under Ben Bradlee, and he cut quite a dashing figure we all would like to have emulated, especially in his role defending freedom of the press when it was truly under attack.
However, there was a great deal negative about his reign. Foremost among them, in my minority opinion, was the creation of the Style Section, which abandoned journalistic standards to invent celebrity journalism. There were colossal errors in the Post, the worst of which was the Janet Cooke creation of the 8-year-old heroin addict. I read that story in bed one Sunday morning, knew and said out loud, “This can’t be true” and never gave it another thought because it was the kind of crap I had come to expect from the Post, even only a few years after Watergate. It was the kind of "holy shit" story that Bob Woodward (who I believe also invents things) held up as the standard for Post journalism.
The Style Section gave license to writers who could not report accurately or use the language correctly. It reported inaccurately that national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski unzipped his pants in a jokingly lewd manner inside the Oval Office. The author of that gigantic investigative piece was one Sally Quinn, who had not been a journalist before she rose at the Post, rising in the most old fashioned of ways. (The most loving of tributes to Bradlee contain anecdotes that portray him as a sexist pig with a preoccupation with the male anatomy.
One Style profile I remember, of Lillian Gish, called her “pixilated.” Maybe the writer meant “pixiesh,” but in my book, “pixilated” means drunk. Another profile of a male movie star referred to him as a “bohunk,” which used to be an ethnic slur against Hungarians. After Bradlee’s departure, but in keeping with his view of what Style should be, the Post hired the single most obnoxious feature writer I have ever read: Hank Stuever, whose first piece was a stream-of-consciousness account of what was going through the minds of people attending George W. Bush’s first inauguration.
My favorite definition of news is “what happened to the editor today.” The Post began to reflect what happened to Bradlee, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a social climber who got all his jobs through old family connections, who made his name in journalism by sucking up to his Georgetown neighbor, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy. If news is what happened to the editor today, then the Post truly was writing for the “1 percent.” I will never forget a front-pager in the early ‘80s about the effects of an economic downturn on local residents, in which someone mourned that “we won’t be able to go to Europe this summer.” The Post wrote not the people of the D.C. area but for its advertisers.
Yes, Bradlee made the Post great, even though his personnel management was called “creative tension,” which resulted in two reporters being assigned to cover the same event and fight for space. I loved the news and sports sections, hated Style and the editorial pages (except for the cartoons). The fact that Henry Kissinger is allowed to publish op-eds at will is insane. I finally unsubscribed this summer because there was not enough volume of real news to drown out the fluff, because the sports writers had been hired out of bad-grammar-school, and because its new ownership promised nothing of value to me.
Bradlee did say one thing that I repeated all the time when I taught journalism, “We don’t print the truth; we report what people tell us.” That may sound like a cavalier copout, but it is all a reader should expect. The Post came close to the truth most of the time under Bradlee because the newspaper knew a lot of people who wanted to use its front page as a social and political bulletin board. And that isn't bad, at all.