Washington Post's Ben Bradlee passes away, age 93

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Kristina Wyman's picture
Molly Sweeney

The newspaper industry lost one of their greatest editors on October 21. Benjamin Crowninshield “Ben” Bradlee, the current vice president at-large of The Washington Post, died at the age of 93, due to natural causes following a period of declining health due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Bradlee was the executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 until 1991. During his reign as executive editor, he became a well-known figure while Richard Nixon was president. Ben Bradlee confronted the federal government in regards to publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers, formally titled United States—Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, is the history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 through 1967 told through official documents from the United States Department of Defense.

The papers were discovered and released by Daniel Ellsberg, former United States military analyst who, while employed by the RAND Corporation, released the classified documents in 1971 to the New York Times, where the papers subsequently ran on the front page. The Times viewed the publication of these documents as a First Amendment right, thus making it acceptable to publish information regarding a one’s understanding of the government’s policy.

At the height of the Watergate Scandal, Bradlee oversaw Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of stories involving the scandal.

Despite backlash regarding publishing parts of The Pentagon Papers and pushing his reporters to fight for the entire story, Bradlee did not give up.

In a Washington Post article written by Woodward and Bernstein following the death of Bradlee, the pair discussed how Ben Bradlee pushed the two journalists to dig for all of the details of the Scandal. Woodward and Bernstein interviewed Bradlee in 1973 for a book that they were writing about Watergate.

“I am very sympathetic with reporters who push,” he said. “And it makes me feel terribly comfortable and particularly comfortable about being an editor who pushes back.”

A graduate of Harvard College and a veteran of World War II, Bradlee helped to launch The New Hampshire Sunday News, which he subsequently sold. In 1948, Bradlee became a reporter for The Washington Post. In 1952, Bradlee began working on the staff of the Office of U.S. Information and Educational Exchange (USIE), the embassy’s propaganda unit. Bradlee also served as Washington Bureau chief for Newsweek, and was involved in the sale of the magazine to The Washington Post holding company. In 1965, he was promoted to managing editor at the Post.

Bradlee has received numerous accolades for his work—in 2007 he received the French Legion of Honor, the highest award given by the French government and in 2013, President Barack Obama named him a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ben Bradlee was remembered during a funeral service held on Wednesday, October 29, at the Washington National Cathedral. His son, Quinn, read the eulogy.

“Ben’s passing, in some respects and in some very clear ways, marks the end of the 20th century,” said Bob Woodward according to a New York Times article on the funeral. “He is gone, and for that we are diminished, and the world is smaller. I will never forget the leadership and the smile of this man we loved so much.”

“What would Ben do?” questioned David Ignatius, a Post columnist, when speaking about the example and legacy Bradlee has left for journalism students.

Though the world of journalism is changing rapidly, Bradlee has left not only a mark on the field, but inspiration to not only those who knew him, but also to those who aspire to have courage to fight battles larger than them and to stand up for what they believe in, in all aspects of life.

In a 2008 interview about the Watergate Scandal, Bradlee voiced his opinion on the future of journalism.

“I am really appalled about that. I cannot envision a world without newspapers. I cannot envision it. I can envision a world with fewer newspapers. I can envision a world where newspapers are printed differently, distributed differently, but there is going to be a profession of journalism and their job is going to be to report what they believe the truth to be. And that won’t change.”

Bradlee is survived by his wife, Sally Quinn, a son from his first marriage, Benjamin C. Bradlee Jr. of Boston, two children from his second marriage, Dominic Bradlee of Hydra, Greece, and Marina Murdock of Purcellville, Va., a son from his third marriage, Quinn Bradlee of Washington, 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

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