Kim Masters on Ben Bradlee: What the Legendary Washington Post Editor Taught Me
THR's editor-at-large reflects on working for the pioneering journalist, recalling his unwavering support for his reporters, his love for the job and how the paper thrived under his watch.
The day I thought I could hang up my spurs as a journalist was Dec. 13, 1990. I was at my desk in the Style section at The Washington Post when I heard a gravelly voice say, "Do you sign autographs?" I looked up, and there before me was Ben Bradlee.
I had broken a page-one story that day about a federal scientist on detail to the Smithsonian. It wasn't my first time on the front page, but this was an original, a real investigative piece. This scientist had sold wealthy Safari Club members the opportunity to hunt rare and endangered Asian animals. He then helped them bring home their trophies — which normally could not legally be brought into the U.S. — by saying they were scientific specimens.
I was in my first year at the paper when this hunter came to the attention of federal prosecutors, and from then on, I was all about Tibetan antelope and endangered Chinese mountain sheep for a while. That first article turned into a series that led to a congressional hearing, and eventually the scientist was indicted. But before all that happened, on the day that first story broke, Ben Bradlee made it his business to find me, and I truly thought that I had reached the mountaintop.
It wasn't the first time I had met him. No one got hired at The Post without his approval, and it was no rubber stamp. There were stories of aspiring reporters who sailed through interviews with various editors only to founder in their meeting with Bradlee. One legendary tale involved a candidate who had all the editors' enthusiastic backing, but was unable to impress Ben. "But why?" one of the editors asked when Bradlee gave the thumbs-down. "Nothing clanked when he walked," Ben said.
When I got to my Ben Bradlee interview in his glass-walled office, I had certain ideas in my head from watching Jason Robards play him brilliantly in All the President's Men. I had already spent a few years covering Hollywood and had repeatedly faced the disappointment that often comes with meeting someone very famous whom you might have thought you admired. So I actually thought to myself, "Ben Bradlee better be Ben Bradlee." And he really was, only more so. I knew things were going well when he leaned back in his chair and started to tell some off-color story.
Ben was a fairly constant presence in the newsroom in those days. He'd banter with reporters, and occasionally he'd join a table of us in the cafeteria. Once he sat nearby while I was eating with a group that included Tony Kornheiser of the Sports section. Ben was pushing 70, and he was still a vital, magnetic presence. Kornheiser — a heterosexual married man — looked at him and said, "God, he's so sexy even I want to sleep with him."
Ben had his faults, as The Post notes. He was too close to John Kennedy. And he liked to let reporters at the paper try to kill one another when he should have encouraged them to work together. It was bad policy, but there is no disputing the paper's greatness on his watch. Ben backed his staff so staunchly that according to another legendary episode, when a group of businessmen came in to complain about a story in the works, he cut them off short, declared, "I stand by my reporters," ushered the visitors out and then walked into the newsroom and asked, "What story were they talking about?" That kind of support is essential to the aggressive pursuit of news in the face of stiff resistance.
More rarely, we had visits from Katharine Graham — Mrs. Graham, as everyone called her. And I sometimes got to represent Style at her lunches and coffees with notable guests. I remember one lunch with Mickey Schulhof, then Sony's top executive in America. By then, the winds of digitization were making themselves felt and Mrs. Graham anxiously asked Schulhof, who seemed to be on the technological cutting edge, whether he thought people eventually would stop wanting to read their news on paper. Schulhof replied, perhaps gallantly, that he thought people would always want a newspaper they could fold up and carry with them. "What a charming man!" Mrs. Graham said in relief as he left.
I didn't get to work for these two great leaders nearly long enough. Bradlee retired at the end of July 1991, and Don Graham fully took the reins from his mother not long after. At that point, to me, the paper slowly began to lose its luster. Don did his best, but his strategy for survival was to focus the Post more on local news. I thought it was a mistake to relinquish the Post's position as a national rival to The New York Times, but there were no easy answers. Ben's successor, Len Downie, lacked the iron guts that made Ben a legend. He wasn't a coward, but he was too afraid of being wrong, and it had a chilling effect. I should say that I believe Marty Baron, whom Liev Schreiber portrayed so well in Spotlight, is Ben's true successor and has restored The Post to its rightful place.
I couldn't quite watch The Post as a movie; I was caught up in some anguished nostalgia for Bradlee and Graham and for those presses underneath the building that made me think there was an earthquake every time they started to roll. I kept scrutinizing Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks for any resemblance to the real people, though I knew, of course, that they were not doing impressions but performances. But for many people, The Post will be a revelation. They will learn about an earlier president with no respect for the press or the rule of law, about a publisher — so often the only woman in a sea of gray, patronizing men — who more than once proved she was willing to not just watch her company's stock fall but to risk the company itself to stand for democracy. And they will see a portrayal of a bold editor who put her to the test by backing his reporters even as they led the paper into uncharted and frightening terrain. For that alone, I wish the movie a long and fruitful run at the box office.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.