I’m about to be perhaps the one millionth news type to comment on the passing of Washington Post legend Ben Bradlee. I’ll be one of the few who acknowledges that I didn’t know him very well, our conversations limited to a few encounters in the same green room, where we never got much past platitudes. I am, however, in full agreement with those who lionize him in death as the personification of the highest ideals in journalism.
He was fanatical about building air-tight stories — nothing less, based on facts, tediously accumulated by hard work with no shortcuts. We saw that in his most celebrated management of the Watergate scandal, but his high standards were largely responsible for the Post becoming one of the most shining examples of what the Founding Fathers envisioned in a free press.
I happened to work for another giant early in my career, another tough-guy manager from the Watergate era, Bill Small, first of CBS and then NBC, who epitomized and demanded strict adherence to making public the information needed so Americans could be well-informed. Each of them, and others, were willing to take on a Nixon administration that threatened serious economic consequences against their companies. Each had courageous corporate bosses who backed them, as long as the stories were impeccably fair and accurate … playing no favorites.
There are a number of heavyweights still left, and the Post is still an awesome newspaper, one of many scattered across the country where aggressive reporters are inspired by today’s superiors to pursue the truth. However, let’s be honest, it was not only Ben Bradlee who passed on. All that he represents is a dying breed. The media field today is covered with what we can politely call “fertilizer.”
At about the same time Watergate was unfolding, news consultants started flourishing. Actually, they are marketing consultants, who sell the idea to profit-hungry owners that viewers and readers can be seduced by glitz and graphics, by sensationalism and mayhem that always will trump substantive reporting — which, by the way, costs more to gather.
We’ve seen it in the “if it bleeds, it leads” TV coverage, as well as the inordinate emphasis on celebrity as opposed to digging for the stuff that really matters, where the viewer or reader would have to pay attention.
Add to that the shortage of coverage that is scrupulously fair and put into context. The most successful news networks these days merely sing to the choirs of those on the left or right, instead of trying to expand their knowledge.
Worse, the agenda is now set by the Internet, where facts are constantly shoved aside and where ignorance has no bounds. For example, when Ebola came to these shores, the threat was hyped to hysterical proportions, and any sense of perspective disappeared in the clamor of media whose operators these days are, uh, operators. They care almost exclusively about ratings or reader gains. They enable politicians who see, as a result, a chance to demagogue the issue for electoral gain.
The polls show that our business gets get very low approval ratings. In Ben Bradlee’s heyday, that was also the case, but it was because his paper and the others were making everyone uncomfortable by uncovering real sleaze. People didn’t want to believe that the leaders of their government, the ones they put into office, could be such lowlifes. I, too, cite a much-quoted utterance from Ben Bradlee: “You never monkey with the truth.”
The problem today is that truth is often replaced by titillation, and those who abuse our system are permitted to do so unencumbered.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.