JIM LEHRER: But even reporters are caught lying.
For Bradlee and the Post, the reporter was Janet
Cooke. She wrote a story about an eight year old heroin
addict who regularly was injected by his mother's
boyfriend. The story won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Two
days later, under pressure from Post editors, Cooke
confessed she had made the whole thing up, including
most of her credentials. The Pulitzer was returned.
JIM LEHRER: You got bitten badly with the Janet Cooke case.
BEN BRADLEE: Tell me about
JIM LEHRER: Explain.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, let me-- I'll explain how it happened.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
BEN BRADLEE: And I'll also explain why it was wrong.
The bond that comes to exist between an editor and
a reporter at, at any level, not just executive editor
and star reporter, but at city editor and beginning
reporter, that's what all that first year or two is
about, establishing a relationship where the city
editor, the lowly editor can trust this person, just
And they learn that by running the stories and not
having them blow up in their face. The reporter learns
that the editor is a stickler about some of this stuff
and he's going to make him go back and back and back
until he gets it on the record and good.
We arrived at that position with Janet Cooke what
turned out to be too soon. We didn't know her as well
as we thought we knew her. She had written for about
a year and a half at the Post. No question ever
asked about her stories. And when this story came
up, she was--people just naturally believed her.
Her description of this, of this child was, was so
vivid and the description of the child's mother and
the mother's boyfriend, you know, they had names.
They were described. There was an illustration to
that story that I can still see today, a very haunting
drawing of this child. And no-- this is the lesson
I really learned-- no objection from the staff that
JIM LEHRER: Nobody had a bad smell?
BEN BRADLEE: Nobody said, hey, it stinks, a little
bit of a rancid smell there. Now, it turns out that
there are some people who said they had that, but--
JIM LEHRER: Afterward?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, afterwards, yes. And I--well,
you know, the question came up, what the hell were
you doing while we were, you know, committing suicide.
And that was an awkward question for them to answer.
JIM LEHRER: Sure, sure.
BEN BRADLEE: And so, all I know is that, once it
happened, it was, it was the most serious blow to
the Post['s] reputation while I was--you know, 27
years that I was editor by far. And that there was
only one way to handle it, is to come so clean that
it had blood over it.
JIM LEHRER: The process, the editorial process that
allowed that story to get in the newspaper did you
change it dramatically after that?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, we encouraged people if, you know,
if you have a doubt, for God's sakes tell someone
JIM LEHRER: A reporter comes in with this great story
and no editor says, well, let me spot check this story.
Let me just see if the--
BEN BRADLEE: Oh, I think that happens on every story.
JIM LEHRER: It does happen?
BEN BRADLEE: Oh, yes; that happens automatic.
JIM LEHRER: But did that happen before Janet Cooke?
BEN BRADLEE: Yes, it did; it did.
JIM LEHRER: It did and they still didn't find it?
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah, it was written by a rising star,
which automatically gave it a certain minor acceptance.
It was written about an area of town where no editors
hang out, no editors live. No managing editors or,
God knows, executive editors hang out there. And the
reputation of the reporter was such that, nobody challenged
The Racial Dynamic
JIM LEHRER: Picking up on something related to this,
as we were talking about and, the idea that you cited
it as an example of the Janet--one of the reasons
the Janet Cooke story got through the system at the
Post was that, the Post editors and the Post
reporters, people who were supposedly supervising
her came from elite or very different backgrounds.
They didn't live in those neighborhoods or whatever.
Is that a problem?
BEN BRADLEE: Let's say the obvious.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
BEN BRADLEE: That Janet Cooke was black. The people
she was writing about were black and she was writing
about blacks who lived in a slum neighborhood. I don't
get there often and neither do the people--I mean,
that, that was a very unspoken dimension of that and
I don't see why people can't speak about it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think it's important that a newsroom
of any news organization be diverse--
BEN BRADLEE: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: --in terms of gender, in terms of age,
in terms of race?
BEN BRADLEE: Should do it and they can do it. It
gives them access into, into communities that they
don't know anything about, A. B, it gives a sensibility
to situations which is totally different than yours
and that's important to have.
JIM LEHRER: But are you saying that there are stories--that
there isn't just one news story fits all? In other
words, people read a news story through racial eyes?
BEN BRADLEE: Yes, prisms.
JIM LEHRER: Prisms, they do?
BEN BRADLEE: Sure they do. But it's not impossible
for a white reporter to understand what's going on
in the black community. But it's just different. It's
almost like if you were dropped into a country whose
language you didn't speak. It would help you if you
JIM LEHRER: Since Cooke, there have been other high
profile cases of journalistic malfeasance. Jayson
Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA
Today were fired for fabricating stories. And Dan
Rather's report about President Bush's National Guard
service was faulted because it was based on documents
which hadn't been authenticated. Rather defended the
report, which "CBS News" eventually retracted it.
JIM LEHRER: Doesn't this hurt the business?
BEN BRADLEE: Sure.
JIM LEHRER: People say, oh, my God, if they're making
up stories in these newspapers, what are they doing
BEN BRADLEE: Listen, listen, my nightmare was that
Janet Cooke would be the second paragraph of my obit.
JIM LEHRER: You think it was that big a deal?
BEN BRADLEE: It still may be. We're not out of the
woods yet on that.
JIM LEHRER: Somebody who's watching this thing now
and listening to us and they're going to read their
newspaper in the morning. What assurance can--what
can you say to them, not to worry about?
BEN BRADLEE: I think that you ought to be able to
say to yourself that this newspaper is put together
by people who are dedicated to finding out the truth
and dedicated to the proposition that they're not
going to publish any misinformation.
JIM LEHRER: How do journalists, how do editors, how
do reporters keep lies out of their newspaper or out
of their news broadcast?
BEN BRADLEE: By the seat of
their pants, they keep lies out. It's one thing if you
know it's a lie. Then you can keep it out.
JIM LEHRER: Sure, just don't run it.
BEN BRADLEE: Just don't run it. But you have to run--
it has become socially proper and right to run what
the President of the United States says. And if in
the process of that, say, press conference he tells
something, he says something that isn't true, you've
got to learn how to handle that. You can't come right
out, quote the statement and then have a paragraph
on your own saying, parenthesis, this is a lie, period.
JIM LEHRER: What do you do?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, you, if it's important enough,
you would assign a special story to it and say, when
the President said A, he flew in the face of-- there
are lots of little euphemisms you can use-- of much
of opinion, which says the opposite. And you can highlight
the controversy. That seems to me to be quite an intelligent
way of doing it.
JIM LEHRER: Are there guidelines that you would offer
to people in our line of work to follow when they
have made a mistake, when something like a Janet Cooke
or a Jayson Blair or a Jack Kelley case comes, how
to handle that sort of thing, even, even smaller mistakes?
BEN BRADLEE: It is now standard practice to admit
error and admit it as soon as possible after you,
after you commit it and to, if you commit a big one,
a Janet Cooke thing, that you run a special story
about it and how the hell did it happen. Many papers
now have ombudsmen who are charged with that and who
have great independence, who can find an error that
no one's complained about and write about it. I think
that's a wonderful, wonderful process.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that the public will accept
errors from their journalist organizations if they're
honest mistakes and they're properly dealt with and
the apology is real.
BEN BRADLEE: I absolutely believe in that. And I
think that, in my history of getting things wrong,
I know that to be true.