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Zeytinoglu: Bradlee left a positive mark on journalism

Ekin Zeytinoglu, Columnist

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On a warm Summer day in 1971, an editor walked out of the Supreme Court with a cheeky smile on his face, indicating he got permission for a journey to change the course of American history. Later that month, the Washington Post, under his lead, published the rest of Pentagon Papers, with the result of radically changing public opinion on the Vietnam War and discrediting many presidents along the way. In the following year, two amateur journalists under his command shed light on what was perhaps the United States’ the biggest scandal, forcing a president to resign. His influence inspired others to pursue investigative journalism.

Less than a week ago, news agencies from all over the globe published their pieces to announce the passing of that editor, Ben Bradlee, and the symbolic end of a journalism era.

Bradlee was a true skeptic and idealist in pursuit of news. He believed that “the truth sets man free” and always “looked for the truth after hearing the official version.” For him, reporters were “the best lie detectors” and therefore “as long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and in fairness, it is not his job to worry about the consequences.”

When he first took charge, the Washington Post was a second-tier newspaper competing with local rivals. But Bradlee turned the Post into a state-of-the-art academy for investigative journalism and managed to create trends rather than following them. The Post’s “Style” section was the first to appear in a newspaper, a direction many of his competitors followed in the upcoming years.

It was often said that if someone wanted anything printed in the next day’s paper, they just had to tell Bradlee not to run it. Given the high level of patriotism he experienced during his time in the Navy, he sometimes avoided publishing stories when he thought his nation’s interests were at stake. However, if he believed that the public should know, despite all the possible outcomes, those pieces were published. Naturally, that understanding led him to many of his most-known stories.

By any means Bradlee wasn’t perfect either.  Journalist Janet Cooke, won a Pulitzer by fabricating a story of an 8-year-old drug addict while working for him. However, Bradlee also knew how to bring positives out of such situations. When Cooke was exposed, Bradlee was extremely transparent to the public, returned the Pulitzer and ordered a full-scale in-house investigation from Bill Green, the Post ombudsman – a position he created.

According to the piece his former newspaper published, what made him so successful was “his patrician good looks, gravelly voice, profane vocabulary and zest for journalism and for life all which contributed to his charismatic personality.” And perhaps because of that, Bradlee became so well known, even among those from a different culture and living through another era of journalism.

Ironically, on the same day of his passing, Pew published a report saying that the nation is at an extremely politically polarized state and that people tend to pick the news they want to read, rather than the news that reflects the truth best. As a result of that polarization, newspapers naturally navigated towards establishing a basis of readers through publishing the news their audience would like to see – a complete reversal of Bradlee’s journalism.

Not many editors of our time get to cause a change at all and even the ones who manage to make a difference tend to be remembered only for the pieces they published and not the novelties they brought to the industry. Undoubtedly, Bradlee will be remembered with a reputation any journalist would covet.

The “candid story of a daring young man who made his way to the heights of American journalism,” the autobiography “A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures,” starts with an anecdote of David Halberstam telling Bradlee, “You’ve had a good life, why not call it that.” I can confidently say that Ben Bradlee has lived a good life, reporting the truth the public seeks and changing many people’s lives for good along the way.

Ekin Zeytinoglu is a McCormick sophomore. He can be reached at ekinzeytinoglu2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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