Friday, August 28, 2009

Ben Bradlee at the Herblock Foundation

Ben Bradlee's birthday was August 26th. It's hard to explain how such a slight man could cast such a long shadow. He has a booming voice, movie-star good looks and as Mike Lupica recently said, "He should've played himself in All the President's Men."

In 2004, Mr. Bradlee gave a speech at the annual Herblock Foundation Prize & Lecture. I was there along with many others who worked at The Washington Post along side him. Here are my notes on his remarks The New Culture of Lying.

A quote from Stanley Walker, 1940's New York newsman. "What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He's aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. He is not only handsome, but he has the physical strength which enables him to perform great feats of energy. He can go nights on end without sleep. He dresses well and talks with charm. Men admire him; women adore him; tycoons and statesmen are willing to share their secrets with him. He hates lies and meanness and sham, but he keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and what he looks upon as his profession; whether it's a profession, or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debate it. When he dies a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days."

At some point during the investigation of any story, a good reporters knows or senses when a source is lying. We've become immune to lying, from selling beer or war or soap or candidates.

During Vietnam it became difficult to believe the official version. JFK didn't have to lie about affairs because no women ever came forward. He lied about Addison's because he didn't want that coming out. Under Nixon, 40 people went to jail including the Attorney General. Our public figures were lying with a straight face. We ran some 400 stories about Watergate. At some point, we knew they were lying. We knew it. We felt it. We couldn't prove it.

Gerald Ford was not around long enough to lie significantly. Reagan lied about being a signal corps photographer who filmed horrors of the Nazi death camps.

In November 1983, Reagan told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he served as a photographer in the US Army unit assigned to film the Nazi death camps. He repeated the story to Simon Wiesenthal the following February. Reagan never visited or filmed a concentration camp. He spent the war in Hollywood, making training films with the first Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps.

Another favorite Reagan lie was that Mount St. Helen's caused more pollution than cars. After opining in August 1980 that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do," Reagan arrived at a campaign rally to find a tree decorated with this sign: "Chop me down before I kill again."

The Big Lie? I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Clinton changed the relationship between the press and the President. While he admitted to being evasive, testifying falsely, misleading testimony, he never said he lied. Still hasn't.

As for this President (George W. Bush), we will see how history plays out. I'm guessing that Weapons of Mass Destruction one will come back to haunt him.

And now the big shots of American business are comfortably in step behind them. Those tobacco executives claiming they knew nothing. Thank God we got Martha. Crisis averted.

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