Ben Bradlee and the Slow Death of American Journalism

When Ben Bradlee, the cosmopolitan former editor of the Washington Post died on  October 21st, the world of American journalism mourned the loss of  one of its greatest icons.  Bradlee, after all, was almost single handedly responsible for the abrupt shift in the role of the print media in the early 1970s from an institution which sought  to gather, present and analyze the news to one that became fixated on the pursuit of justice. For many the high water mark of his long and storied career came when Richard Nixon boarded a helicopter on the White House lawn on the morning of August 9, 1974 and slashed his arm through the air in a final wave of farewell to his staff.  Bradlee knew that his paper’s unrelenting commitment to  the investigation of the Watergate break in and cover up had been  the key factor in leading to the events of that day.   The abuse of power had been confronted and justice served.

But a review of that period might reveal much darker motives which impelled Watergate reportage and the subsequent Congressional investigation.  The overwhelming defeat of  Democrat George McGovern’s 1972 for the presidency had not sat well with the Beltway media. In McGovern, many had felt they had found the antidote to the United States’ rightward drift as the first Nixon Administration had not only maintained but escalated the war in Indo-China and had allowed many of the progressive Johnson reforms to be undermined.  The Nixon White House endured four years of stinging coverage from Washington reporters, commentators and news editors and was very much at war with them.  But the trouncing of McGovern, one of the greatest electoral landslides in American history, was a rebuke to the media who had lavished such untoward attention on a candidate whose far left views and policies had  proved decisively out of  touch with the American public.

But that was not the only impetus for the persistent desire to ” get” Nixon.  How many know, for instance, that Bradlee himself harbored a deep resentment of the Nixon White House for purportedly preventing the Post from receiving a range of broadcast licenses it had applied for in the late 1960s?   And  we can’t forget the closeness of Bradlee and his then wife Toni to John F.Kennedy and his wife Jackie, who were their Georgetown neighbors during Kennedy’s Senate years.  Bradlee shared Kennedy’s abiding contempt for Richard Nixon, an attitude made clear in his own  book Conversations With Kennedy.  Bradlee had come to see Kennedy’s immediate successors Johnson and Nixon as impostors who had stolen the mantle of American leadership and committed himself to restoring the crown to its rightful owners.

Hatred for Nixon and his Administration was so dominant that the Post, New York Times, Time and other major newspapers and magazines zeroed in on the indiscretions and sleight of hand of the new Administration, focusing intently on behavior they had entirely overlooked in previous administrations.   After all,  FDR had created his own ‘ Intelligence Unit’, responsible only to himself, with a staff of eleven financed by state department special emergency funds.  Prefiguring another Democratic president 80 years later, he was not above using the FBI and the IRS to harass his political enemies.  Lyndon Johnson had few qualms using executive power to target his adversaries  and the Kennedys’ use of dirty tricks was legion.  Robert Kennedy was in fact one of the most underhand and vicious Attorney Generals in U.S. history, employing his agents to carry out dawn raids on the homes of U.S steel executives and the IRS to question their financial integrity.  His own and his brother’s womanizing,  which included virtual orgies in the White House and allowing a bevy of women access to the President without the slightest background checks, was well known within the Washington Press Corp ( some of whom apparently participated in the romps) but nothing was said.  And Bobby Kennedy’s almost certain involvement in the death of Marilyn Monroe, a service carried out to protect both himself and his brother, went unmentioned by anyone in the Press at the time despite considerable circumstantial evidence that could have implicated him.

The Watergate break-in, the petty, almost laughable bungled burglaries in May and June, 1972, conducted by men associated with the White House, if not directly controlled by Nixon himself,  was dismissed by most at the time as a random urban crime.  But the Post, smelling a rat, took on the case with gusto, running the story on its front page 79 times in the next two years  and in the final month of the 1972 election season ramping  up its coverage with a series of investigative reports by the now famous team of Woodward and Bernstein. Once the Courts and Congress got involved and matters devolved to the point of a potential impeachment of the President in 1974, the media, led by the Washington Post, had a field day and became the cheerleader in the saga’s denouement.

That the same attitude and standards had never been applied to Nixon’s Democratic predecessors seemed to worry no one. By the time of his ouster Richard Nixon had been so demonized as a latter day Richard III that nothing could save him.  The media, more than the courts and more than Congress itself , had ground him up into pulp.  And on top of the ash heap which had once been his Administration stood a glowing Ben Bradlee, certain of the righteousness of his actions and sure that it would restore a Democratic president to power.

Many who have reviewed the events of that time have lauded it as an example of the strength of American democracy and the ability of the system to cauterize a tumor when it recognizes its malignant spread.  But that is not the way others abroad have viewed it.   The English author Paul Johnson, writing in his majesterial A History of the American People has called it an act of startling political immaturity, as close to a witch hunt as the 20th century would ever produce.   Others in Europe were dazzled by the spectacle of American self-flagellation, as if  the country had fallen into collective  penance for the wrongs committed in Vietnam.

Of course it went further than it should have ever gone and the entire process did incalcuable harm to the office of the Presidency and the trust in both an unbiased media and a responsible judiciary.  Nixon had to carry much of the blame himself  for the fiasco which ensued and the many poor decisions he made as his enemies closed in on him. But the punishment never matched the offense and  if presidents can be routinely dismissed for dissembling  and cover ups  then neither Woodrow Wilson,  FDR , Lyndon Johnson , Bill Clinton or Barack Obama should ever have completed their terms of office.

But more egregious than this was the course upon which the media, encouraged by its victories in the Watergate scandal,  now set its compass.  With its reporters lionized as the new Knights of the Realm, the Washington Post reached the zenith of its power as a journal of reportial integrity and became the flagship for media authenticity. Nothing was said about the sheer malice and hubris which had driven the campaign to unseat a sitting President.  No explanation was given about how  there had become established one set of standards for Democrats and another for Republicans.   From the mid-70s onward, the news sections of the print media – and soon to be followed by television and radio – would no longer see themselves as mere purveyors of the unbiased presentation of the news but  as vested with a responsibility, as if from High, to filter the news through their own particular prism of right and wrong.   The search for justice, at least as liberals understand it, swiftly became more important than the conveyance of actual truth.

Which perhaps explains where we are today.  What conservative, reading the news in our present day, cannot help feel the deepest loathing at  the media’s refusal to doggedly investigate the multitude of scandals swirling around the Obama Administration?  Where today, after all, are our contemporary Woodwards and Bernsteins, scraping through the garbage cans of our federal officials searching for leads on such notorious scandals as the Benghazi attack, Fast and Furious campaign and  the IRS scandal?   If such reporters exist, then they must necessarily  suffer ostracism like the award winning investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, hunted and spied upon by the government and sidelined, on spurious grounds, by the very news organization which employed her.  We should never forget that no American died as a result of Watergate and its subsequent cover up.  But when Americans do die because of Government action or inaction, when our own ambassador is abandoned and subsequently murdered and the government then seeks to cover up its willful negligence in allowing it happen, is it not right that we should expect howls of outrage from our media barons and their unfettered determination  to expose the truth?

Unfortunately those who expect such an outcome are living in a different century.  For in the 21st century, truth is hardly relevant to any story.  What matters today is how the story conforms to or supports a particular narrative and how much attention it can attract from advertisers.  To understand this tragic development we need to follow a disreputable trail that leads back to Ben Bradlee and 1970s Washington.  But to understand how the media operates today, we probably need  to borrow the observations of White House counsel John Dean – “we have a cancer within the media, that’s growing daily….. it grows geometrically now because it compounds itself.”

Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles and the coordinator of the March AFA  international conference Shocking Truths: The Repression of Free Speech in the Western Media. 




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