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Unless you haven’t read it in about 50 years, the Washington Post as you know it is the way it is because of Benjamin Bradlee.
Bradlee, who died Tuesday at 93, edited the paper for 26 years, presiding over its publication of the Pentagon Papers and its coverage of Watergate, launching the Style section, and turning the Post into an institution that could rival—or at least aim to rival—the New York Times as a national newspaper. (He was also, in one of the bits of luck like those that dot his 1996 memoir A Good Life, fortunate to retire from the job in 1991, before the economics of the print news business soured.)
“Ben Bradlee was the best American newspaper editor of his time and had the greatest impact on his newspaper of any modern editor,” former Post publisher Don Graham told former Post managing editor Robert Kaiser for his obituary of Bradlee.
His biggest journalistic triumphs at the Post were on national news, even if Watergate started out on the Metro desk; his biggest failure, Janet Cooke‘s invented 1980 piece “Jimmy’s World,” about an imaginary 8-year-old heroin addict, was a local story. But even though we at Washington City Paper like to snark at the daily now and then, it’s impossible to overstate the significance to the city of the Post Bradlee built, along with the late former publisher Katharine Graham and her son Don.
Reading Bradlee’s obit tonight mostly made me want to go re-read Bradlee’s memoir yet again. The stories he tells of the glory days of the newspaper business, and the self-assured voice he tells them in, are enough to inspire anyone to go into newspapering, or to banish any worries about the future of the industry. (The paper he shaped, and where he served as vice president at large since he retired as editor, is already mostly free of those worries, thanks to the Graham family’s decision to sell it to Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos last year.) Bradlee might note here, as he did in the book, that he doesn’t deserve all the credit for the way the Post turned out. “A newspaper is not referred to as the ‘Daily Miracle’ for nothing,” he wrote in A Good Life. “It takes the talents of a great many people working a great many hours at the top of their game before an editor can put his feet on the desk and accept congratulations. With this kind of talent, congratulations are inevitable.”
But outside the Post‘s building tonight (which isn’t even the Post‘s anymore; it was sold to Carr Properties last year, and the newspaper didn’t keep the real estate in the sale to Bezos, anyway), the news ticker on 15th Street had a different message, one that made perfectly clear what Bradlee’s legacy at the paper is. “In memory of our friend and colleague Ben Bradlee, 1921-2014,” it read. “A man who will be forever remembered for his deep impact on not only the profession of journalism, but also on the country. Our hearts go out to his family during this time.”
Here’s a Post video tribute to Bradlee, too:
Additional reporting by Perry Stein