by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
October 24, 2014
WHERE ARE THE BEN BRADLEES IN TODAY'S NEWSROOMS?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In our professional lives, we get very few opportunities to work with great leaders.
The qualities of a great leader are subjective.
But if you've worked with others, be it in the military, academia, or the workplace, you know great leaders when you see them.
They are decisive. They see what needs to be done and find a way to do it.
They praise in public, and criticize in private.
They possess hard-won experience in their field, and never ask you to do something they haven't done themselves.
They are loyal to their teammates, and expect the same loyalty in return.
They know when to push their team members, and when to ease up.
They are secure enough in their own abilities that they surround themselves with people who are at least as smart and talented as they, and prefer people who are smarter and more talented when possible.
They know the simplest recipe for success is to hire talented people and let them do their thing.
There aren't many that possess these qualities; I've only worked for a couple of them. But when you have the privilege of working for a great leader, you cherish the experience, and hope you will be at least half as good if you ever get a chance to be in charge.
Those were the thoughts I had upon the news of Ben Bradlee's death on Oct. 21 at age 93.
Alzheimer's got him in the end, but not before he lived a life that, to use one of his phrases, many of us would "give our left one to have." Not for nothing did he title his memoir, "A Good Life."
And the glad truth is that he was a man of his time, the right person in the right position at the right moment of history.
The Washington Post of the early 1960s was a mediocre and unambitious newspaper. Bradlee became its managing editor in 1965, the same year that Tom Winship took over an equally sleepy Boston Globe, and Jim Bellows was making sure the New York Herald Tribune would not go down without a fight.
All three men, among the great newspaper editors of the second half of the 20th Century, had one thing in common: They hired talented reporters and editors, and pushed them to be even better.
Bellows had the misfortune of being what he called "the last editor," the guy brought on in a last-ditch attempt to keep a dying paper going. Whlle the Herald-Tribune, the Washington Star, and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner all expired, they died with their boots - on as lively and innovative papers.
The Globe became a great paper under Winship. He never had a story like Watergate, the story that made the Post into a national force in journalism, but like Bradlee, he built up a staff that snagged more than its share of Pulitzer Prizes.
Bradlee had energy and an eye for talent like Winship and Bellows, but unlike the latter two, he also had the total backing of his publisher, Katharine Graham.
Having gone through the experience of leading a newsroom. I know that if your publisher isn't in your corner, you won't have a job for long, which is why my one experience in a command position lasted only a few months.
Bradlee and Graham were a team, and that allowed Bradlee to take chances and build up a newsroom that had as much swagger as the man who led it. That swagger and confidence was manifested when the Post published the Pentagon Papers, and followed the Watergate investigation from the initial break-in to the desk of the Oval Office.
He doubled the staff and circulation of the Post during his time at the helm, and made it a paper that people mentioned in the same breath with The New York Times.
The paper they built became as profitable as it was influential, and proved to be a model for other newspapers to follow. The 1970s and 1980s were very fat years for the newspaper business, and life was good for those who were at ambitious and innovative papers like the Post or the Globe.
Bradlee retired in 1991, two years after Winship stepped down, and two years after Bellows' Herald-Examiner slipped beneath the waves. Bradlee got out at the right time, before the Internet decimated the business.
There aren't any Bradlees in today's newsrooms. Too many newsroom leaders have had to preside over cutbacks and retrenching, They have to deal with technological upheaval and plummeting circulation. The Post itself is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the mastermind of Amazon, and the chance it will be a paper that will bring down a corrupt president seems remote.
Most of all, there are many leaders in today's newsrooms who are as totally committed to the First Amendment as Bradlee was. He believed exposing the truth is what newspapers are for, and helped inspire a generation of young journalists to take on that mission, because it is one, and because it is fun.
I am part of that generation that entered journalism in the afterglow of Watergate and "All the President's Men." And in my own place, in my own time, in my own way, I am doing my best to uphold the best of the Bradlee traditions of truth-seeking, and pass them on to the next generation.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.