‘A Good Life’ (‘La vida de un periodista’) —Ben Bradlee

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Ben Bradlee es el hombre que puso a The Washington Post, un periódico de tercera categoría cuando Bradlee asumió la dirección en 1965, a la altura de The New York Times. Con él al frente del periódico, el Post fue capaz de seguirle la exclusiva de los papeles del Pentágono al Times y provocó la dimisión de Richard Nixon como presidente de Estados Unidos. Él siempre dijo que había sido un tipo con suerte, pero las necrológicas dicen que es uno de los periodistas más importantes de la historia.

 

Ben Bradlee es el hombre que puso a The Washington Post, un periódico de tercera categoría cuando asumió la dirección en 1965, a la altura de The New York Times. Con Bradlee al frente, el Post fue capaz de seguirle la exclusiva de los papeles del Pentágono al Times y provocó la dimisión de Richard Nixon como presidente de Estados Unidos. Él siempre dijo que había sido un tipo con suerte, pero las necrológicas dicen que es uno de los periodistas más importantes de la historia.

 

En 1995 publicó sus memorias. En A Good Life (Simon & Schuster), Bradlee repasa toda su vida: su niñez —superó una polio—, sus inicios en el periodismo, su amistad con John F. Kennedy, su relación con Phil y Katharine Graham y cómo levantaron el caso Watergate. El libro fue traducido al español por Aguilar en el 2000 con el título La vida de un periodista, pero es muy difícil encontrarlo. Estas son algunas —sólo algunas— de las líneas que he subrayado:

 

Ben Bradlee

Miguel Arias Contreras Drake-McLaughlin (Flickr)

 

* Writing is an acquired skill, at least for me. I wrote for almost fifteen years before I felt reasonable sure of turning in a coherent, well-written story.

 

* It is wonderfully ironical that a man who so disliked—and never understood—the press [Richard Nixon] did so much to further the reputation of the press, and particularly ‘The Washington Post’. In his darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour.

 

* My first lesson in the First Commandment of investigative journalism: Follow the Money.

 

* In the summer of 1949, I graduated from Municipal Court to general assignment, the best reporting job on any newspaper, because you never really know what you will end up doing before the day is over.

 

* Jerry W. Carter, of the Florida Railroad and Public Utilities Commission, testifying before a congressional investigating committee, “I’ve tried to tell you the truth, but I’ve got to tell you one thing: I’ve been trying to quit lying all my life, and it’s the hardest job I ever had.”

 

* When I got to know Kennedy, I kind of staked him out as part of my own territorial imperative, and as he prospered.

 

* The press generally protected Kennedy, as they protected all candidates from the excesses of their language, and from the sometimes outspokenly deprecatory characterizations of other politicians. This protection most definitely covered Richard Nixon, whose language “was worse than yours, Bradlee,” according to Ken Clawson some years later, after he had quit the ‘Post’ as a reporter to become a Nixon aide in the White House. When India Edwards called Jack Kennedy’s health, not a line appeared anywhere. Reporters tolerated then what they felt to be the excesses of partisan politics. That toleration has slowly disappeared with a new generation of reporters, and I am not sure who’s the better for that. The rules changed about covering the private language and behaviour of presidential candidates. And editors struggled to cope with them. (Gary Hart’s campaign in 1987, for instance.)

 

* The experience of having a friend run for President of the United States is unexpected, fascinating, and exciting for anyone. For a newspaperman it is all that, plus confusing: are you a friend, or are you a reporter? You have to redefine “friend” and redefine “reporter” over and over again, before reaching any kind of comfort level. And that takes time, before you get it right. If the friend is actually elected president, it gets worse before it gets better—a lot better.

 

* Our social life was limited to a few colleagues Tony liked. Polly and Joe Kraft, the columnist, especially; Art and Ann Buchwald; David Brinkley, the the king of NBC News, and his wife Ann; Ed and Agnes Williams; Rowland and Kay Evans. Not yet the Beautiful People. The celebrification of journalists was just starting.

 

* National political conventions are like campaign ribbons for the military. Correspondents talk about them the way soldiers talk about battles, remembering—and polishing—their experiences like war stories.

 

* My father had always told me to move carefully when talking to someone who knew more than I did, if I couldn’t or wouldn’t shut up. But moving carefully of shutting up doesn’t always work with publishers.

 

* Dick Harwood, primitive in his search for the truth, impossible to deceive, and without peer in his ability to write a declarative sentence, had been assigned to cover Bobby Kennedy exactly because he was skeptical of Kennedy, and almost despite himself had grown to like Kennedy, then respect him, and finally to feel close to him.

 

* He had been by Bobby’s side when Sirhan Sirhan’s bullets struck. We told him we had stopped the presses and were going for an extra. He was to call us back with everything he had in thirty minutes.

 

In fact, I had already shouted, “Stop the presses!” (for the first and only time in my life), electrifying everyone in the newsroom, including myself. But the presses had not stopped. The emergency bell installed for just this purpose had been disconnected (by whom? we suspected the bean counters), and it took several minutes for the word to drift down to an indifferent press room that Bradlee really meant it.

 

Television shines its brightest in the first few hours after actions that are vivid and dramatic, when truths are hard to find and pictures give only clues. In these moments television doesn’t have the time to set out fact from rumor, nor the information to place events in context. That’s the newspaper’s vital role. What we can’t achieve with immediacy, we provide with background and comprehensiveness. So, “extras” may not serve much purpose in the age of television, but we were determined to put out an extra anyway, maybe because the effort would keep us from facing the ugliness and the tragedy that was dogging this family. But also because there was to be reported and we were newspaper reporters. The bean counters were slightly less enthusiastic, as the drifted into de newsroom asking, “What’s all this about an extra?” and thinking of all that overtime money.

 

* The journalist’s reputation for being hard-boiled and cynical describes a self-defence mechanism. Without the pressure of the next deadline, a reporter could—and would—indulge his or her emotions. Sorrow, rage, despair, whatever. But with the next deadlines—five of them every day—journalists must move on. We moved our energies on to, among other things, a problem that had been bugging us all for months: where in the paper were we going to cover the revolution in how people were living? Where and how would be cover what real people were doing, rather than criminals murdering or leaders leading?

 

* Sometime in the early spring of 1971 we had begun hearing rumours that ‘The New York Times’ was working on a “blockbuster,”, an exclusive that would blow us out of the water. News like this produces a very uncomfortable feeling inside and editor’s stomach. Getting beaten on a story is bad enough, but waiting to get beaten on a story is unbearable.

 

* Over the years, I have prided myself in recognizing a good story when I see one, even when no one else sees it. This is what I do best. ******* Pentagon Papers -> For the first time in the history of the American republic, newspapers had been restrained by the government from publishing a story—a black mark in the history of democracy. We had won—sort of.

 

* There are many, many rewards in the newspaper business, but one of the finest comes with reading the competition quoting your paper on its front page.

 

* A man can fairly be judged by the quality of his heroes, by the quality of the leaders he chooses to follow.

 

* A reporter must take notes and quotes from the TV screen until about five minutes before the end, when he must start his story.

 

* Newspapering deals with small daily bites from a fruit of indeterminate size. It may take dozens of bites before you are sure it’s an apple. Dozens and dozens more bites before you have any real idea how big the apple might be. It was that way with Watergate.

 

* It is one of the great ironies that Richard Nixon, of all people, attracted an entire generation of able, young, tough activists into journalism, a business he never understood and never liked. And with them came the reform politicians who were so appalled by the excesses of the Nixon administration in 1973 and 1974.

 

* Journalism was forever changed by the assumption—by most journalists—that after Watergate government officials generally and instinctively lied when confronted by embarrassing events. “Look for the lies” replaced “Look for the woman” or “Follow the money” as the new shibboleth of journalism.

 

* In matters of national security, the question quickly boils down to this: Is the security of the nation really at stake, just because someone in authority says it is? The Pentagon Papers, for instance. I learned the answer the hard way: Almost never.

 

In matters of privacy the question is this: Is there some sacred public right to know that overcomes an equally sacred right to privacy? There is no easy answer to that one.

 

* Newspaper people spend much of their life in some kind of defensive crouch. This is ultimately deforming unless diagnosed and treated.

 

A clear exclusive plastered all over page one of ‘The New York Times’ could put an otherwise outstanding ‘Washington Post’ reporter into a defensive crouch automatically. “We had that,”, he would respond instinctively, within seconds. And when challenged, he would disappear into the library for an hour or so, before returning quasi-triumphantly waving a clip. Sometimes, if the reporter was lucky, there would be some vague reference in paragraph 30 to a minor bit of evidence in the exclusive.

 

* Thanks to Watergate, I had learned a vitally important lesson: The truth is the best defence, and the whole truth is the very best defense.

 

* A reporter’s reputation could be tainted by charges that he was too close to the CIA, or manipulatable by the CIA.

 

* Theories of journalism are a pale imitation of journalism itself. Stories are for reporters and editors. Theories are for critics, and teachers.