Ben Bradlee’s death reminds us why so many got into journalism

by Kent Sterling

Jason Robards won an Academy Award and the hearts of young journalists everywhere with his portrayal of Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men."

Jason Robards won an Academy Award and the hearts of young journalists everywhere with his portrayal of Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.”

When I saw “All the President’s Men” in a Louisville movie theater in 1976, I thought exposing conspiratorial hubris like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did during Watergate would be the coolest thing anyone could do with a professional life.

And working for a boss as cool as Jason Robards’ portrayal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee would be the icing on the cake.  Robards won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work on the film as much for being such a great boss for Woodward and Bernstein as for his acting chops.

Bradley died yesterday, but he will be forever remembered for his decision to “stand by the boys” when Richard Nixon’s White House did everything possible to discredit the accurate reporting by Woodward & Bernstein that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation.

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The number of people who were influenced to become reporters because of that movie must number damn near everyone who saw it.

Unfortunately, stories like Watergate don’t come along everyday – or every decade.  Presidents rarely are plagued by Nixon’s combination of insecurity and arrogance, his cronies are rarely that stupid, and reporters are usually not allowed to be that diligent.

But what remains very similar is the desire to tell the story of events and people who make our lives richer, and that’s what journalists do.  Sometimes they hold people accountable for misdeeds, and other times a rare level of grace and decency is applauded.

The right person in the right place is capable of awesome good, and the wrong guy in the wrong place can make a decision that causes unspeakable harm.  Journalists are there the reveal both.

The media is a key element in the checks and balances that allow us to make informed decisions at the ballot box.  That’s why freedom of the press is guaranteed in the First Amendment.

Bosses at newspapers, news/talk radio stations, and TV news departments should encourage the best level of work as both the best and worst of humanity is revealed.  They should support, prod, motivate, and hold content providers accountable for the level of work deserved by a marketplace that needs journalists to tell them about the stars and dregs of our society.

That appears to be the type of guy Bradlee was, but sadly that kind of boss is in short supply these days.  Corporate toadies and relentless sycophants populate middle management almost everywhere in media, and the guys willing to go toe-to-toe with the big bosses to “back the boys” are in short supply.

Journalism is measured these days by the number of clicks a post receives.  A 350-word screed about Renee Zellweger’s plastic surgery with two-million page views is seen as precisely 1,000 times more valuable to a media portal as a superbly crafted illumination of the human spirit that is seen by only 2,000.

That’s what happens when pragmatists get the keys to the executive suite, but those doing the work understand that the best is sometimes the least consumed.

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At our best, journalists tell interesting stories.  A our worst, they pander to the lowest common denominator to satisfy the corporate demand for clicks.

Bradley likely wasn’t as cool and magnanimous as Robards’ portrayal, but even if he was 10% the boss that “All the President’s Men” made him appear to be, that would still make him one of the best in the history of journalism.

Unfortunately, he probably wouldn’t last six months in the role in most newsrooms today.

4 thoughts on “Ben Bradlee’s death reminds us why so many got into journalism


    Yes, I agree with this article. You must carry some blame. The infatuation with the American sports athlete is shameful. More people know Kobe Bryant than Neil Degrasse Tyson. People know who won the Heisman Trophy but do not know who won the Fields Medal. While you are not directly responsible for what the public infatuates, you are responsible for providing content that is saturated. The giants who are actually changing this world are shadows compared to someone who repeatedly shoots a ball into a basket. Great thinkers are not celebrated. It is disingenuous to decry entertainment media when you post articles discussing Paul George leaked penis pic scandal.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      As you might guess, I disagree with your assessment of my being complicit in celebrating celebrity while ignoring those doing great work. I write quite often about people behind the scenes doing great work and making tough choices. I also write about what I perceive to be injustice in college athletics while celebrating those who try to make a difference. Then there are also posts that talk about moments of indiscretion like the George penis selfie, where social media and the athlete’s responsibility to his franchise and family to behave respectfully.

      Any implication that this site promotes the salacious is wrongheaded.

  2. Pauly Balst

    How ironic that before Ben Bradley is in the ground, Bob Woodward has a quote that calls out today’s pathetic journalist and journalism students, the next generation of no talent hacks.

    Woodward said, “The reality now in my view that in the Obama administration, there are lots of unanswered questions about the IRS, particularly. If I were young, I would take Carl Bernstein and move to Cincinnati where that IRS office is and set up headquarters and go talk to everyone.”

    Gee, you think, Bob? This isn’t hard. It really isn’t. You go to Cincinnati and ask questions. It doesn’t require brains or talent. Maybe these people were hero’s 40 years ago, but where are they today? It’s telling that you reference them weekly and indict Nixon like it happened last week.

    Where has the “profession” been, Ben Bradley? Even Woodward is goading them? LOL! Truly pathetic.


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