Part 2—Ben Bradlee’s important lecture: In fairness, Grandfather Rufus did the same thing at one time.
In February 1880, he delivered a lecture, “Human Hypocrisy,” in New Haven, Connecticut. On February 2 of that year, the New Haven Union ran the text of the speech in tiny type running all the way down one column of its front page.
(Yes, that’s our grandfather, not our great or great-great grandfather. Improbably, the numbers add up. Wikipedia focuses on an early part of his career, which began in the 1850s.)
In his lecture, Grandfather Rufus detailed the role hypocrisy plays in the various professions. Reading the text several decades ago, we noticed an omission:
Grandfather Rufus described the way hypocrisy works in every profession—every profession but his own!
(Which we’d call “traveling showman.” In 1896, he shattered New Brunswick attendance records with his immortal show, “Professor Wormwood’s Monkey Theatre.” In the New Brunswick of that day, there probably weren’t a lot of ways to see teams of disciplined, highly-trained monkeys. If “Professor Wormwood” came to town, you pretty much had to go.)
More than a century later, Ben Bradlee did the same thing in a somewhat similar lecture. Excerpts from Bradlee’s 1997 address dominated the front page of the Outlook section in Sunday’s Washington Post.
Bradlee died last week at the age of 93. As everyone knows, he had had an enormously important career at the Washington Post.
(Over the weekend, we watched tapes of his interviews on C-Span. His charisma was obvious.)
Bradlee was a hugely important figure in the mainstream press corps of the past fifty years. In part for that reason, we think his lecture is highly instructive.
Bradlee delivered The Press-Enterprise Lecture at Cal-Riverside on January 7, 1997. The address was called, “Reflections on Lying.”
In the lengthy excerpts in Sunday’s Post, Bradlee, a very impressive person, started like this. We noticed an instant omission:
BRADLEE (1/7/97): Newspapers don’t tell the truth under many different, and occasionally innocent, scenarios. Mostly when they don’t know the truth. Or when they quote someone who does not know the truth.When we read the highlighted statement, we thought of Grandfather Rufus.
And more and more, when they quote someone who is spinning the truth, shaping it to some preconceived version of a story that is supposed to be somehow better than the truth, omitting details that could be embarrassing.
And finally, when they quote someone who is flat-out lying. There is a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times—in politics, in government, in sports and everywhere. It’s gotten to a point where, if you are like me, you no longer believe the first version of anything. It wasn’t always that way.
In that sentence, Bradlee said there was “a lot of spinning and a lot of lying in our times.” But these were the specific places where he said these behaviors were found:
We couldn’t help noting that he failed to mention his own guild, the mainstream press corps. As he continued, he made an extremely murky reference to the fourth estate:
BRADLEE (continuing directly): I guess it started for me with Vietnam, when the establishment felt it had to lie to justify a policy that, as it turned out, was never going to work. It mushroomed during the counterculture days, when sacred protective shrouds were ripped away from every institution in our society. Government itself, of course, the church, schools, colleges, family and sexual relations, business, especially big business, the Boeskys, the Milkens, the Barbarians at the gates. And, of course, the press, which was on hand to record the ripping of the shrouds with glee. Some thought: too much glee.In that passage, does Bradlee say that “a lot of spinning and a lot of lying” could be found in the mainstream press?
One by one these institutions got a hard second look from the new generation, the first hard look since World War II and the first new look from citizens of the Information Age. But Vietnam, the counterculture—Haight-Ashbury and drugs and all that—the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Nixon’s exile to disgrace, the S&L scandals, Irangate, the Gulf War, they were all terribly important stories, historical turning points that had to be covered with energy and intelligence.
Let’s look at Vietnam first and the damage it did to the habit and the virtue of truth, to the politicians caught in its jaws, to the press caught up in the web of official lies.
Actually, no—he doesn’t. In that passage, his formulation is extremely murky. He merely says that “sacred protective shrouds” had been “ripped away from” the press in recent decades, as had been the case with “every institution.”
We aren’t real sure what that means. But by the end of Sunday’s excerpts, Bradlee is clearly praising the mainstream press corps for its attempts to uncover the lies with which it was now surrounded.
“Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face,” Bradlee says roughly halfway through the excerpts. As he approaches his conclusion, his framework looks like this:
BRADLEE: Where lies the truth? That’s the question that pulled us into this business, as it propelled Diogenes through the streets of Athens looking for an honest man.That takes us one step past Grandfather Rufus.
The more aggressive our search for truth, the more some people are offended by the press. The more complicated are the issues and the more sophisticated are the ways to disguise the truth, the more aggressive our search for truth must be, and the more offensive we are sure to become to some.
So be it.
Remember, Walter Lippmann was right so many years ago when he wrote that, in a democracy, the truth and nothing but the truth are rarely available immediately. In a democracy, the truth emerges—sometimes it takes years—and that is how the system is supposed to work and eventually strengthen itself.
Grandfather Rufus merely omitted his own profession when he detailed the reach of human hypocrisy. By way of contrast, Bradlee openly praised his own guild.
In Bradlee’s formulation, the lying and spinning were everywhere else. People in the mainstream press were trying to puncture the lies.
According to Bradlee, other people got mad at the press when its members conducted their search for the truth. The more aggressive their search became, the more some folk were offended.
In that lecture, Bradlee never suggested that anyone ever got mad at the press corps for valid reasons. People got mad at the press corps because of its search for the truth, not because of its spin or its lies.
In that sense, there’s a familiar old term for that lecture. It was a bit of a whitewash.
To some extent, Bradlee’s formulations were perfectly accurate, of course. During the decades he was discussing, many journalists had been engaged in a search for the truth—presumably, Bradlee among them.
But something else was true about the decades in question. By the time of Bradlee’s lecture, the mainstream press corps was riddled with spin.
It was also riddled with “storylines”—narratives, scripts, standard stories. All too often, the press corps was driven by standard stories its members devised to advance their own simple-minded views of a more complex world.
Sometimes, people had become “offended” when the press corps had behaved in such spin-drenched ways. But in the excerpts from that lecture, Bradlee seems totally unaware of this obvious fact.
Being human, we all have blind spots. To our ear, that lecture displays a large blind spot about the culture which had developed within the mainstream press.
That doesn’t mean that Bradlee was being dishonest. You’ll note that we haven’t accused the press corps of “lying” or of “lies,” though Bradlee tossed those terms around in exceptionally careless ways.
Was Bradlee being dishonest that night? We know of no reason to think so.
That said, other journalists have been dishonest about their profession as the years have gone by. We’ll also say this about Bradlee’s lecture—in some very basic ways, it was light-years away from smart.
How smart, how honest is the press? Concerning the way the press corps covers White House campaigns, we say those are very important questions for liberals and progressives to ponder.
During the decades which Bradlee discussed, his guild had developed a very bad habit. It had begun inventing silly stories about our White House campaigns and about the people within them.
By now, this low-IQ conduct has changed the history of the world, and not in a way which is good. This conduct hasn’t been very honest—and it has been light-years from smart.
Before this series is done, we’ll review those silly stories and their remarkable effects. We’ll start with 1972, when Candidate Muskie got knocked from the race—in large part, thanks to some very peculiar behavior at the Washington Post.
Tomorrow, though, we’ll return to that lecture, asking a very important question:
Ben Bradlee was a very important journalist. Was that lecture smart?
Tomorrow: How smart is the mainstream press?