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What Ben Bradlee might teach us

Published:Thursday | October 23, 2014 | 10:00 AM

What Ben Bradlee might teach us

The name Ben Bradlee is unlikely

to ring a bell for most Jamaicans. Many may, not unreasonably, question the relevance of him being eulogised in these columns.

But Bradlee's appropriateness for our attention is captured in a tribute by United States President Barack Obama to the late former Washington Post editor, who died yesterday at age 93.

"For Benjamin Bradlee," said Mr Obama, "journalism was more than a profession - it was a public good vital to democracy." He led a newspaper and reporters, the President added, "who told stories that needed to be told - stories that helped us to understand our world and one another a little bit better".

And that, essentially, is the core mission of the press. But it is accomplished in its fullest sense by the relative few - in those who converge not only passion for their job, but an appreciation of its possibilities, the intellect and talent to manage its execution and the support of those who manage the business of the press and its often-precarious finances.

All these attributes converged in Ben Bradlee. In the process, he transformed the Washington Post, at whose editorial helm he was from 1968 to 1991, into one of the world's greatest newspapers, and in the United States, probably only second to the venerable New York Times.

VIETNAM, WATERGATE ISSUES

Mr Bradlee is especially renowned for two events: He fought in court, with the New York Times, on the Post's right, in 1971, to publish the Pentagon Papers - classified government documents that gave the lie to the claims by US political and military leaders that the war in Vietnam was going well. The Pentagon Papers helped fuel the demand by ordinary Americans for an end to the war. Second,

Mr Bradlee also resisted pressure from the US government to stop the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal that led, ultimately, to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and

the era of greater scrutiny of the American presidency.

These events reinforced the right of Americans to know about the actions of their government and, at the same time, their capacity, with the support of a vigorous and courageous press, to influence its behaviour, to the benefit of democracy.

UNDERPINNINGS TO SUCCESS

But Ben Bradlee had two important underpinnings to his success. One was Katharine Graham, the Post's publisher and owner who would not be comprised and supported his quest for transparency and truth. The other was Mr Bradlee's integrity. He was

a Washington Brahmin who counted among his friends John F. Kennedy and others in America's power elite. But those friendships never compromised his journalism.

As Mr Bernstein, the Watergate reporter, puts it: "His one unbending principle was the quest for truth and the necessity of that pursuit."

Which brings us back to where we started - Mr Bradlee's relevance, or perhaps, more appropriately, what lessons Jamaica's media might learn, or have reinforced, by his journalism. In that regard, President Obama's observation, we believe, is apt: of journalism as a public good in helping to extract meaning and clarifying issues in the national space to the benefit of democracy.

But as Ben Bradlee exemplified, this is achieved not by chest-thumping declarations. It demands intellect, a commitment to truth, and a willingness to be led by the facts, rather than attempt to shape to fit preconceived perceptions. That rests on integrity.