Some journalists stumble into this profession without really meaning to.
The rest of us, being romantic, take up our pens because we want to be like our heroes.
For me, those heroes split into two types. First there were sportswriters, of which C L R James, John Arlott and Christopher Martin-Jenkins were my favourites. And then there were the great editors, lions of society who wielded huge power with nothing more than the printed word. I devoured their books, from Andrew Neil and Max Hastings to, in an earlier age, the great Alastair Burnet and Harry Evans. But nobody in the history of my trade embodied this heroic figure, or inspired me to take up journalism, like Ben Bradlee, who died this week.
The obituaries have focused on his extraordinary qualities, not least courage. Courage in overcoming polio (as, by the way, our own Patrick Cockburn did); courage in printing the Pentagon Papers when all around him said don’t; and courage in taking on a president. By all accounts he was a man of exceptional generosity, decency and charisma.
But I can’t stop thinking about another quality he had in spades: luck. So much of great leadership is being lucky with timing, and Bradlee timed his every move to perfection. He reported from Paris in the 1950s, befriended the Kennedys in the 1960s, and felled Nixon in the 1970s. More crucially, he turned a decent newspaper into a journalistic titan at that moment in history when (partly because of him) newspapers were at their zenith.
It’s true that you make your own luck. Bradlee’s judgement, energy and panache produced acres of great journalism long before and after Watergate. But as he had the good grace to admit, he was fortunate in having a publisher who backed him almost unconditionally, exceptional reporters – and the resources to set them free.
Naturally there has been a heavy dose of nostalgia in coverage of Bradlee’s death. I happen to think that journalism’s best days are still to come. Yes it’s true that much has changed since this lion of Washington and two reporters with rat-like cunning deposed a president; but the fundamentals haven’t. Public appetite for scandal and scrutiny is greater than ever – and we now have the kind of tool-kit Bradlee, in his pomp, could only dream of.
Journalism has been afflicted by crises in recent years, whether commercial and technological (the internet) or institutional (as today’s front page story reminds us).
In this context, the right response to Bradlee’s death is not to say we shall never see his like again – but to use his example as a spur to being the best journalists we can be.
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