06 August 2013

Ben Bradlee and Me

For most print journalists, the Washington Post represents some sort of holy grail. I know it does for me. We all read and/or watched “All The President’s Men” in journalism class and yearned to be in the center of the action like that and to have an editor like Ben Bradlee.

When I heard about its sale yesterday, I was shocked. I checked my email here in Poland and there was a news alert from the Washington Post (WaPo) announcing the change.

Since I left Billboard and became a freelance journalist in 2006, I can honestly say —with no disrespect to any of my other outlets —having my byline in the Washington Post has been the biggest thrill for me. I started freelancing for WaPo in 2007 and while I don’t write for the paper with any great regularity, my Washington Post pieces are some of my favorites, whether I was reporting from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon or about Elvis Presley Enterprises or how the No Child Left Behind Act had unintentionally gutted school music programs or interviewing Janet Reno about an album of music that told the history of America. 

The first time I went to the WaPo office, I felt chills. It was as if the building gave off a vibe that history had been made within these walls. My editors (and there have been quite a few — WaPo shifts editors around to different beats and/or bureaus with frequency) were always wonderful about walking me around and letting me soak in the atmosphere as if seeing it through my awe-struck eyes helped invigorate them too. 

I was in D.C. in May 2009 and stopped by WaPo to see my then editor Rich Leiby, who took over the Arts section only briefly and is now in Pakistan (I believe) or somewhere in the Middle East for WaPo. We went to the cafeteria to sit and chat.  As we’re in the cafeteria line, I see an older gentleman, dressed in a very nice maroon sweater and grey pants, and with a twinkle in his eye that hit me from across the room.  He goes through the line and sits by himself. Rich and I get our drinks and sit a few tables over. I look at him and say, “Is that Ben Bradlee?” Rich looks over and says, “Yep.” Bradlee had retired by then, but apparently still stopped by the news room on occasion to visit with people.  Rich asked me if I wanted to meet him. I said no, I was too awestruck. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I took them back. I looked at Rich and said, “I’m an idiot. Of course I want to. When will I ever get this chance again?”

Here’s what I remember:  Rich and I walked over to Mr. Bradlee. Rich introduced me, but didn’t say I write for WaPo. Mr. Bradlee stands up, in the middle of eating his fish sticks with tartar sauce, and continued standing the entire time we were talking. He called me “young lady,” which I guess I was to him since he was 87 at the time. 

I incoherently stammered out that I was so incredibly honored to write for WaPo and that it was beyond my greatest privilege to have my byline appear in the newspaper that had produced some of the most significant journalists and pieces of journalism ever. I blathered on about how meaningful it was to meet him. He was so warm and so charming that I thought I would melt in a puddle right there on the cafeteria floor. I could totally imagine Mr. Bradlee  and JFK being total scamps together and getting into mischief. 

After only a few minutes, I apologized for interrupting him and let him get back to his meal. It was only then that he sat back down. I could not have been more excited about meeting the biggest rock star in the world. I was absolutely giddy. Even writing about it now makes my heart skip a beat. I’d read Katherine Graham’s autobiography years earlier and the relationship they had as publisher and editor and trusted colleagues had been its own beautiful story. (Below is a picture of the two of them from the '70s that the New Yorker ran today).

So when I heard about the sale and the Graham family turning over their prize jewel to Jeff Bezos, it felt very real to me and very sad, but I really, really hope it gives the Washington Post the boost it needs. 

Today’s $10 goes to the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C.-based non-partisan investigative news organization. Founded in 1989, CPI is dedicated to, according to its website, “revealing abuses of power, corruption, and betrayal of trust by powerful public and private institutions using the tools of investigative journalism.” I bet Mr. Bradlee would approve.

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