BY GENE POLICINSKI
Did the First Amendment ever have a more stylish defender – and one who made more effective use of it – than Ben Bradlee?
The legendary managing editor of The Washington Post who died Tuesday at 93, Bradlee’s 23 years at the helm were marked by landmark collisions between a free press and government, from the Pentagon Papers to reporting on Watergate.
He also weathered criticism that he was too close to one-time Georgetown neighbor John F. Kennedy to be an objective journalist, and too removed from a story by a young reporter, Janet Cooke, that resulted in a returned Pulitzer Prize.
With style and wit, and without apology, Bradlee championed a free press as a watchdog on government.
“Obviously the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our business and of democracy,” he said in a 2006 interview at the Newseum. “It isn’t something that I commit to memory and say like my prayers, but it has a place in my day-to-day life. It is the freedom that allows us to do good work. It allows us to be important in society.”
Americans generally take their First Amendment rights for granted, Bradlee continued. “I know they do … and that’s great. That means we’re doing something right.”
Even so, Bradlee said, there was strength in his belief that “freedom of the press is ingrained in American society. A president comes and tries to do something, and in the process, tramples on the First Amendment. He gets brought up short and doesn’t make a fuss about it. They all cave. And that’s good. The Pentagon Papers was a once-in-a-lifetime fight over the First Amendment. But it was worth the fight. You got to draw the line, and you can’t let them cross it.”
Bradlee’s courage in holding government accountable is the stuff of myth – and fact.
After reviewing a particularly significant bit of reporting by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that implicated Attorney General John Mitchell and President Richard M. Nixon in Watergate wrongdoing, Bradlee recounted the high stakes involved, and then reportedly said, “You had better be right.” As it turned out, they were.
His gruff manner, aristocratic bearing and journalistic independence grated on some, to be sure. But his career embodied what the founders must have had in mind in building into the basic laws of this nation such a strong protection for a free press: An unflagging, unabashed passion for finding the truth, and an enthusiasm and commitment to telling it to one’s fellow citizen.
And for all of that, thank you, Mr. Bradlee.
– Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.