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Newspaper Editor Ben Bradlee Discusses Career, Journalism

June 19, 2006 at 6:45 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a few words about truth and journalism from former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee. They’re from an hour-long conversation he and I had that will air tonight as a “Free Speech” special on most PBS stations.

You said that lying has taken the joy out of Washington. What do you mean?

BEN BRADLEE, Former Washington Post Editor: Well, I mean, I think a lot of people lie, and I don’t think that they pay any price for lying the way it seems to me that we did when we were young, certainly I did when I was a teenager.

One of the interesting things about reading all of the stories currently about big-shot businessmen who are going to jail, Enron types, the common denominator is that they didn’t tell the truth.

JIM LEHRER: And it’s just accepted that they lied. I mean, it’s just assumed that they lied.

BEN BRADLEE: Well, it isn’t by me, but…

JIM LEHRER: No, no, but I mean…

BEN BRADLEE: … society doesn’t seem to be as outraged by it as they should. And it’s really — it’s one of the great, the worst of the sins, it seems to me, because you deceive people, and you deceive people originally on purpose, and then, if you don’t correct it, you deceive them by nonfeasance.

JIM LEHRER: You’ve said also that all presidents lie. Do you really mean that literally?

BEN BRADLEE: Yes, I think they do. I think they do. And they lie because they don’t search out the truth. They get involved in incidents that do not have a clear answer. And in the process of explaining those or trying to avoid those, they say things that aren’t true.

Now, we don’t like to call those lies, maybe because it isn’t quite bold enough, it isn’t quite obvious enough.

People don't get hooked on papers

JIM LEHRER: People ask people who interview people on television all the time why they don't ask -- when they ask a question, and they hear an answer back that they know is wrong, they don't lean over and say, "Liar!"

(LAUGHTER)

It's not what we do.

BEN BRADLEE: You'd get a lot of listeners if you did.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes, right. Why do people not want journalism anymore?

BEN BRADLEE: I think the answer for newspapers is because we're losing that young audience. I don't think people get hooked on newspapers -- some never, obviously -- but until much later in their life.

I don't know what -- I go to certain colleges. And of course, I ask the question, "Do you read newspapers?" And they all, you know, put up both hands as if they all read them. I'm not sure they do; I don't think they do. Circulation figures don't show that.

Good stories are the answer

JIM LEHRER: But do you think that the newspapers, faced with this decline in circulation, should re-examine what they're doing?

BEN BRADLEE: They're examining, re-examining it. Boy, that's Topic A. Every paper you go to, they've just had a meeting, and they're discussing what to do about falling circulation. And there's one word that's the answer.

JIM LEHRER: What is it?

BEN BRADLEE: Stories.

JIM LEHRER: Stories?

BEN BRADLEE: Good stories.

JIM LEHRER: So when you say "stories," what stories are they not doing, kinds of stories...

BEN BRADLEE: I mean, they're just well-written stories, some story that makes you, you know, say, "I'll be damned. That's a good story."

JIM LEHRER: Yes, "I didn't know that."

BEN BRADLEE: Yes, "I didn't know that," or, "That's beautifully written," or, "I feel really better for having read that," "That really piqued my curiosity."

"I am still hopeful about life"

JIM LEHRER: One of the other clichés they say about folks like you and me, people who practice journalism, is that we're pessimistic, that we're cynical. You don't buy that, do you?

BEN BRADLEE: No. In fact, we're the two worst people in the world to talk about that. You know, you wake up in the morning and your glass is full, and mine is, too. I just can't wait to face the world in that day. And, you know, I don't know a whole lot of sad sacks in this business.

JIM LEHRER: I don't, either.

BEN BRADLEE: I just thought of that the other day, that, you know, in my 84th year, and I still feel pretty hopeful about life. I really do.

"Journalism changes your life"

JIM LEHRER: But hopeful is part and parcel of journalism, isn't it?

BEN BRADLEE: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Being hopeful?

BEN BRADLEE: Yes, I mean, it changes your life, the pursuit of truth. And at least, if you know that you have tried to find the truth and gone past the first apparent truth towards the real truth, it's very exciting, I find.

JIM LEHRER: As I said, the full interview can be seen on most PBS stations tonight. There's also more information available on our Web site at www.PBS.org.