JIM LEHRER: Bradlee stepped down as executive editor
of the Washington Post in 1991 and became a vice
president of the Post Company. He speaks and writes
often about journalism and ethics.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, I care a lot about ethics. I mean,
I care about it existentially. I mean, I believe in
JIM LEHRER: But let's go through some specifics.
Should journalists participate as individuals in politics
BEN BRADLEE: No.
JIM LEHRER: No?
They should vote.
JIM LEHRER: They should vote, but
they should not give money for--
BEN BRADLEE: Well,
I don't even know if they should vote. I'm not going
to tell them to vote.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, but that's their
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: Should they be
allowed to contribute money to political candidates?
BEN BRADLEE: I don't think so. I don't think we have
a rule against that.
JIM LEHRER: But you don't think
BEN BRADLEE: I don't think they should.
JIM LEHRER: Should they--
BEN BRADLEE: The owner can.
JIM LEHRER: Sure, but a journalist in the newsroom--
BEN BRADLEE: Stay the hell out of it. Stay the hell
JIM LEHRER: Stay out of it; stay out of it. How
about going, as an individual, to a political rally,
attending a political event, not as a reporter, but
as Billy Bob Citizen?
BEN BRADLEE: Billy Bob Citizen.
No, I don't think he should.
JIM LEHRER: What about,
what about walking in an either pro-war or anti-war
BEN BRADLEE: No, no way.
JIM LEHRER: No way?
BEN BRADLEE: Stay the hell out.
JIM LEHRER: Nobody works
in the news department? What about a sports writer?
BEN BRADLEE: To go to a pro--
JIM LEHRER: A pro-war
or an anti-war march.
BEN BRADLEE: No, stay out, stay
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah.
BEN BRADLEE: Now, you've avoided the question. What
about the wives?
Okay, what about the wives or the husbands?
Or the husbands. My answer to that is, please, don't.
JIM LEHRER: Please don't.
BEN BRADLEE: But on the other
hand, if you have a wife who has spent her entire career
working for the betterment of teachers' pay and there's
a big rally about teachers' pay, what are you going
to do? You can't tell her you can't go. But the guy
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
BEN BRADLEE: Because it
gives the impression that he is under that influence
especially in a way that is wrong.
JIM LEHRER: Sammy
Sue Reporter writes a story about an event or about
a cause that he has some interest in or his wife has
some interest in or his kid has some interest in. Should
the public know about that?
BEN BRADLEE: Yes.
How do you tell them? How do you tell them?
Well, you don't assign the reporter.
JIM LEHRER: You
don't assign the reporter?
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah.
Even though that reporter may know more about that subject
than anybody in the newsroom.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, I mean,
I don't know what the subject is. If the subject is
disarmament, that's probably okay. But if the subject
is the war in Baghdad, I think probably, you know, that's
either pro-war or anti-war. You shouldn't do that.
JIM LEHRER: What's your position about journalists
making speeches for money?
BEN BRADLEE: I don't think
they should make speeches before partisan committees
who are trying to influence Washington in one form
or another. I think if you could keep your speeches
to institutions like colleges and, you know, non-profit
organizations, that would be better.
JIM LEHRER: What about serving on boards of trustees
BEN BRADLEE: I think it's out. I'm not a member of
anything. I never joined a press club. I never joined
JIM LEHRER: What? Now, what's the problem with joining
a press club?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, because I just didn't--
JIM LEHRER: Just didn't want to do it, okay.
It's a great excuse not to go to that.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, but I mean--I mean, but that's
BEN BRADLEE: When our office at Newsweek
was right below it, I used to go.
JIM LEHRER: But
it wasn't an ethical issue, I'm not going to belong
to the press club.
BEN BRADLEE: Just don't belong
to anything is the, is the best rule. Don't belong
to anything. I don't belong to country clubs. I don't
belong to anything.
JIM LEHRER: And that's for journalistic
BEN BRADLEE: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: For ethical
BEN BRADLEE: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Because you
don't want people to think what?
BEN BRADLEE: I don't
want to make any changes in my behavior because I'm
a member of something. And I don't want to have the
reputation of that.
JIM LEHRER: Is that a good thing,
that journalists have become such public figures,
not only just--
BEN BRADLEE: There's nothing you can
do about it.
JIM LEHRER: But does it matter? Does
it hurt anything?
BEN BRADLEE: I think it draws more
of a spotlight on them and, and makes it advisable
for the public to watch them.
JIM LEHRER: But the
whole idea of the celebrity journal--the star journalist,
Woodward and Bernstein journalists, Ben Bradlee, journalist,
I mean and, I'm talking about print people as well,
of course, obviously television people. Is there,
is there a danger?
BEN BRADLEE: Sure, there's a danger.
Sure, there's a danger.
JIM LEHRER: Explain the danger.
BEN BRADLEE: The danger is that, these guys begin
to look more important than they are and that they
think they're more important than they are and that
it adds another dimension to interpreting them. It's
hard to understand a person if--the more famous he
becomes, the harder it is to say, what the hell is
his motive. What's he up to?
JIM LEHRER: You said that lying has taken the joy
out of Washington. What do you mean?
BEN BRADLEE: 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 the
stories currently about bigshot businessmen who are
going to jail, Enron types, one 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--
JIM LEHRER: I know, but I mean--
BEN BRADLEE: --but society doesn't seem to be as
outraged by it as, as they should. And it's one of
the great, the worst of the sins, it seems to me,
because you, you, you deceive people and you deceive
people originally on purpose and then if you don't
correct it, you deceive them, you've deceived them
by, by non-feasance.
JIM LEHRER: You've said also that all presidents
lie. Do you really mean that literally?
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah, 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.
JIM LEHRER: People ask people who interview people
on television all the time why they don't ask them--when
they ask a question, they hear an answer back that
they know is wrong, they don't lean over and say,
liar. It's not what we do.
BEN BRADLEE: You'd get a lot of listeners if you
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah, right. A lot of people don't
want journalism anymore.
BEN BRADLEE: I think the, I think the answer for
newspapers is because the--we're losing that young
audience. I don't think, 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'd be--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. And I'm not
sure they do. I don't think they do. Circulation figures
don't show that.
The Future of Journalism
JIM LEHRER: But do you think that the newspapers,
faced with this decline in circulation, should reexamine
what they're doing?
BEN BRADLEE: They're examining, reexamining it. Boy,
that's topic A. Every, 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
is 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 that they're
BEN BRADLEE: Well, 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: Yeah. I didn't know that kind of thing.
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah, I didn't know that or that's beautifully
written or I feel really better for having read that.
That really piqued my curiosity.
JIM LEHRER: One of the other cliches they say about
folks like you and me, people who practice journalism
is that, we pessimistic; that we're cynical. You don't
buy that, do you?
BEN BRADLEE: No, in fact, we are the two worst people
in the world to talk about that. You know, you wake
up in the morning and your glass is half--is full
and mine is, too. I just can't wait to face the world
in that day and, you know, there are--I don't know
a whole lot of sad sacks in this business.
JIM LEHRER: I don't either.
BEN BRADLEE: And 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. JIM LEHRER:
But hopeful, hopeful is, is part and parcel of journalism,
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: Being hopeful?
BEN BRADLEE: Yeah. It changes your life, the pursuit
of truth and it--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, it's very
exciting, I find.
JIM LEHRER: Say, some young person is listening to
this, listening to you now and is trying to--is wrestling
with the decision maybe I want to go into journalism.
Maybe I want to be a reporter. What would you tell
them? Would you encourage them to do it?
BEN BRADLEE: Well, if I--
JIM LEHRER: Today's journalist.
BEN BRADLEE: --if I saw a fire in his eye, I sure
would, yeah. I would have some very specific suggestions.
I would, I would tell him to try--not about his education--
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
BEN BRADLEE: --because I don't, I don't necessarily
believe in J school or anything like that. But I would
tell him to get a job, not in his home town. Get out
of town. Get from mom and dad. Get out from the family.
Get out with the experiences that you think you know.
And then I'd tell him to look for a paper with a good
editor, somebody who looked as if he would pay attention
to you, work with you. I had three of those people
in my lifetime. Then I'd say keep moving. You know,
two and a half years is about right for the first
two or three jobs. I would say sooner or later that,
you ought to go overseas. Go somewhere where you don't
come from and see how other people live. Then start
picking your spot. See if you can find a place that
looks like home to you.
JIM LEHRER: Where would you tell them that the rewards
are if they do it?
BEN BRADLEE: That you'd never be bored if you're
as lucky as I've been. You really never will be bored.
I mean, a day--that's why I have what I think is quite
a high threshold of boredom. I mean, I get bored perfectly
easily. But if, if you're doing something you want
with a group of people you want that pays you a living
wage an makes a difference to how the world lives,
I don't think you can get much better than that.
JIM LEHRER: Ben, thank you.