Category Archives: Journalism

Remembering Ben Bradlee (1921-2014)

By Christopher B. Daly

Let us now praise Ben Bradlee. He has rightly been called the most courageous and consequential newspaper editor of the postwar period, and I would give him the whole 20th Century. During his 25+ years leading the Washington Post newsroom, Ben elevated the Post from the middle ranks of U.S. news institutions to the front ranks. He did it with nerve, imagination, and guts. If you think it’s easy to lead a couple hundred journalists, try it some time. Most days, you can’t get two or three to agree on anything, follow anyone, or admit that they couldn’t do any job better.

It should also be noted that Ben transformed the Post with Katharine Graham’s money. It takes nothing away from Ben to observe that he was lucky in the timing of his career. He said as much himself.

“I had a good seat,” he said to Alicia C. Shepard in a 1995 interview with The American Journalism Review. “I came along at the right time with the right job and I didn’t screw it up.”

 What made it the right time was that the Post was then gushing money, enjoying the heyday of all the big-city U.S. dailies that enjoyed a monopoly (or near monopoly). As I wrote in my book Covering America, the Post was poised for takeoff when Mrs. Graham took control of the Post in 1963.

Though terrified of what she was getting into and almost entirely unprepared to lead a large enterprise, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post Company in late 1963 and set about making her mark. In 1965 she brought Ben Bradlee over from Newsweek and made him managing editor of the Post. She helped him become a great editor, not only by supporting him professionally but also by presiding over a business that was practically printing money. These were boom years in Washington. Under Johnson, the Great Society programs were staffing up, bringing thousands of middle-class, white-collar jobs to the city and its increasingly far-flung suburbs. This was the target audience for the Post, and for every advertiser in the region. Money came rolling in. During the three years after Bradlee took over, the budget for the Post newsroom more than tripled, leaping from $2.25 million a year to almost $7.3 million. Bradlee got to add fifty new slots in the newsroom, and he went on a hiring spree. In the process, he transformed the paper, creating a star system (known famously at the Post as “creative tension”) in which reporters had to jockey for space in the paper and for favor in Bradlee’s inner circle.

Imagine that: 50 new hires! And those were good jobs with good salaries and benefits. All those newbies were beholden to Ben, so he had most of them in his pocket. Plus, he managed to rid the newsroom of some holdovers who did not fit with his plans. In the end, he was able to build a giant new team of people who mainly loved him.

Could he have been a great editor in another period? How would he have managed decline, cutbacks, and the diminished clout of the last 15 years at the Post? We’ll never know, of course. It’s entirely possible that he would have prevailed with his charm and his bravado. But without the budget to back it up, I have my doubts that even Ben could have made newspapering fun in the dreadful years.

I did not know him well, but he was my boss for more than two years when I worked at the Washington Post near the end of Ben’s 25-year-run. (I say “Ben,” because that’s what everyone called him; we all called his boss “Mrs. Graham,” but he was always Ben.) I was a tiny asteroid in his universe, but I remember my few encounters with him vividly. You could not be around him and not want to be closer to him. You wanted to know that he knew your name, and you treasured his “attaboy”s and any kind of attention. For most of my career as a journalist, I wanted my editors to leave me alone. Not with Ben.

Everyone has been telling Ben stories since his death on Tuesday, and I have been spending hours soaking them in. One good place to start is his own memoir, A Good Life – which is, as he might put it, a goddamn good book. It has many of Ben’s virtues: it’s unpretentious, it’s full of fun, and it doesn’t spend a moment feeling sorry for its subject.

Among other remembrances that I’ve enjoyed:

Here is a piece by Martha Sherrill, one of the many voices Ben promoted in the Post Style section that he invented (and which may be his second-largest legacy to U.S. journalism).

Here is a tribute from David Remnick, who, as usual, is right on target.

Here is BU Prof. David Carr’s smart, funny recollection.

Here is Ben in his own wonderful voice talking with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” saying that journalists should be fair and honest and not back down (which just about sums it up). He also observes that anybody would have to have been “lobotomized” not to have pursued the Watergate story.

Finally, here’s one photo of Ben (among so many — the man was ungodly handsome and photogenic) that I particularly enjoy. It shows him in August 1974 in the Post’s composing room, looking pensively at a “chase” of metal letters that newspapers still used in those days to create a negative image from which newspaper pages could be printed. That particular page says (in reverse) NIXON RESIGNS. I like this photo because it reveals another side of Ben Bradlee, one that not everyone knew about. In that summer of 1974, when Ben knew that the end was near for Nixon after the Watergate scandals, he sent the word out through the newsroom: there was to be no gloating, no spiking the football, no champagne. He enjoyed a fight, and I believe he loved being in the arena, but he had the virtue and sense of decency that demanded good sportsmanship in the game of life.

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

Photo by David R. Legge (WaPo)

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Filed under Ben Bradlee, Journalism, media

Former NYT Editor Jill Abramson: Getting back into journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Is former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson getting back into journalism?

Yes, according to hints she dropped Monday night during a talk at Boston University. Abramson said she has been exploring the possibility of launching a new journalism start-up with veteran publisher and investigative reporter Steven Brill.

The proposed new operation would focus on a few large stories, and it would employ professional journalists at decent salaries, Abramson told a packed hall during a conversation with Times media columnist and B.U. professor David Carr.

After Carr teased her about making some news and challenged her to “show a little leg,” Abramson said, “Well. . .” Then she divulged that she and Brill have been conducting talks with investors who might back their proposed venture.

But she revealed little else, offering no details on how her journalism start-up would work financially or how it would stand out
professionally.

Since her departure from the Times, Abramson has given a series of i

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux. Photo by Ann Wang

Jill Abramson ( L) and David Carr (R) discuss what David Carr describes as the “present future”, when the production and distribution of media is in constant flux.
Photo by Ann Wang

nterviews (mostly to female journalists), and she has been teaching a course in narrative non-fiction in the English Department at Harvard.

When Carr brought up the subject of her separation from the Times and seemed to be groping for a euphemism, Abramson abruptly corrected him, saying “I was fired.” She added that she has spent her career seeking the truth and telling it, so she saw no reason to sugar-coat her dismissal from the newspaper in May at the hands of the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

Abramson, 60, began her career in journalism by reporting for and editing a student publication at Harvard, the Independent, then went on to jobs at the American Lawyer, Legal Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times.

Her conversation with Carr was sponsored by Boston University’s NPR affiliate, WBUR-FM. It was to be broadcast Tuesday evening at 8 p.m..

[Full disclosure: Jill and I were classmates in college, and I have seen her sporadically since then. I enjoyed her book about her dog.]

Update: You can listen to the full conversation here on WBUR’s superb midday program “Here and Now.”

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Filed under David Carr, Jill Abramson, Journalism, media, New York Times

Monday Rdp

By Christopher B. Daly 

Dear readers:

I have not been posting as often as I’d like lately — to many other pressing matters (articles due, classes to teach, meetings to try to avoid, etc. . .)

Here are some recent items I hope you don’t miss:

From the New York Times:

–BU Prof David Carr’s latest column.

–45,000 emails later, the Public Editor looks back at a year on the job. Among readers’ biggest concerns: anonymous sources and false balance in news stories.

–A conversation with journalist Richard Preston, author of the original Ebola scare, The Hot Zone.

–A depressing report from old media-land.

Elsewhere. . .

–Welcome home to my colleague Joe Bergantino, who was “detained” in Russia for the offense of giving a workshop in investigative journalism. Here’s his open letter to Vladimir Putin.

–Brian Stelter continues to outperform his predecessor at CNN’s Reliable Sources. Don’t miss his interview with James Risen, national security reporter who stands in the bulls-eye of the Obama team’s war on the press.

–As usual, NPR’s “On the Media” has some insightful, original stuff.

–And the Nieman Journalism Lab has a piece I want to read about Knight Foundation funding decisions, plus lots more.

Good luck keeping up. Send me any suggestions/omissions/objections.

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Where to draw the line between history and journalism?

By Christopher B. Daly 

As an author with a foot in both camps, I often wonder where the dividing line can be drawn between history and journalism. After all, both fields are devoted to empirical research into the past — just along different timelines.

Journalists want to know what has just happened — within, say, the previous day or so. Some journalists also want to explore what those developments might mean.

Historians want to know what has happened beginning at some time prior to the present, going as far back as the evidence can go. Most historians also want to comment on the meaning of those facts.

Because these inquiries overlap so much, it’s often hard to say who’s who. Many journalists explore historical topics. For example, my colleague in the B.U. Journalism Dept. Mitch Zuckoff, a veteran journalist, has written two best-selling books involving WWII topics and a brand-new best seller about the disaster at Benghazi in 2012. Is he a journalist or a historian? [As for me, I've written a history of industrialization and a history of journalism, but I do not have an academic appointment in a history department.]

Thanks to the BBC, we now have some data about how non-specialists (at least Brits) view this issue. In a recent survey, the BBC History Magazine asked folks to specify when events become part of History. Their answer: about 10 years.

Here are the results:

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The BBC also rounded up some expert opinion, and here are some of those thoughts:

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What’s your view? When does history start?

Leave a comment.

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Filed under history, Journalism, journalism history

Monday round-up

By Christopher B. Daly

Good Monday, readers!

–As so often happens, first up is B.U. Prof. David Carr.

His latest Media Equation column heralds the re-vitalization of The Washington Post under big-spending owner Jeff Bezos. Hooray for new money in the news business. Personally, I am very pleased to see my old

Katie Zezima Mediabistro

Katie Zezima
Mediabistro

employer having the resources and the sense to hire smart young journalists like BU alumna Katie Zezima, now part of the Post’s political coverage team — covering the White House, no less — after her stints at the NYTimes and the AP. Good luck to the Post’s owner (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) and the paper’s top editor (Marty Baron).

–Sticking with the Times for a moment, here is the Public Editor’s recent comment on the big flap between Amazon and Hachette, involving many writers on both sides.

Can someone help me get to the bottom of this issue? Is there a “good guy” in this fight? Who is really on the side of authors? Are all authors in the same boat?

–Interesting piece here about the European approach to archiving material on the Internet. Even better is 140929_r25505-320this recent New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Toobin.

–Delighted to see Peter Canellos, after being unceremoniously released by the Boston Globe, has landed an important new job at Politico. Why is Politico thriving? Maybe it’s because they hire talented people. . . (On the other hand, Politico has some of the most vicious comment-ers on the Internet, so if you want to hear “the other side” about Canellos, just read the comments. Phew!)

–The radio show “This American Life” by Ira Glass has launched a terrific new audio narrative that they are 537_lgcalling “Serial.” It is described as a “spin-off” and is available as a podcast. I listened to the debut installment this weekend, reported by Sarah Koenig and a team. It’s a terrific tale of the reporting of a doubtful prosecution of a “convicted murderer.” It ended on a real cliff-hanger, leaving me ready for more.

–The always worthwhile NPR program “On the Media” delivered again this weekend. I particularly enjoyed this piece on the work of Craig Silverman, the founder of the site “Regret the Error,” which paid attention to the neglected subject of news media carrcorrections. His latest cause: tracking rumors as they emerge online, at his new side Emergent.info. Good luck with that, Craig.

–The Nieman Journalism Lab asks “What’s up with those 100 layoffs in the New York Times newsroom?” Ken Doctor has some answers.

–History keeps happening: the culture wars shift ground to the teaching of history. Conservatives don’t like the new guidelines for teaching Advance Placement U.S. history courses in high school. Part of their beef is that the new approach, devised by “revisionist” left-wing academic historians, dwells too heavily on America’s faults. Imperiling our sense of patriotism (Is that really the take-away kids are supposed to get from studying history), this new approach focuses too much on negative stuff, like protests.

So, how do smart high school kids respond? THEY PROTEST!

I’d say that shows they have already learned something!

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Filed under AP history, history, Journalism, journalism history

The secret history of the Manhattan Project

By Christopher B. Daly 

Better late than never: the U.S. government has finally declassified its official history of the Manhattan Project, the vast and Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 3.16.57 PMsecret program undertaken during World War II to build an atom bomb. (Which was intended, first and foremost, for use against Germany, but as it happened, the bomb was not ready by V-E day in May of 1945, so it ended up being used against Japan in August.)

As it happens, the Manhattan Project was a major focus of my master’s thesis in U.S. History at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 1980s. At that time, none of these documents were available. Instead, I had to rely mainly on Hewlett and Anderson’s multi-volume history of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was the main successor to the Manhattan Project and which oversaw the conversion of the bomb-making project into two new, separate enterprises: military efforts to make bigger and better bombs and civilian efforts to make cheap nuclear energy available.

Even after all these years, it is still remarkable how few “atomic secrets” slipped out during WWII and reached hostile powers. Of course, that depends on how you define such secrets and how you define hostile powers. In one sense, there is no “atomic bomb secret.” Before the war, physicists had pretty well worked out the basic science of atomic fission. After that, it’s all engineering, and there are in fact many different ways to apply the science to create weapons. The issue of “hostile powers” turns out to have been the more vexing issue. During the war, the U.S. naturally worried about maintaining secrets from the Germans and the Japanese, our avowed enemies. They did not pay enough attention to maintaining secrets from the Soviets, our putative allies.

I have no intention of re-fighting the Cold War battles over atomic espionage (in which a small number of misguided leftists cooperated with Soviet spies and probably made the world a worse place).

All I want to do today is draw attention to the belated but still welcome declassification of this report.

BUT NOTE: there are almost certainly more parts that the government has not declassified and will not even acknowledge. That’s the nature of secrecy. 

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What can we learn from a Civil War sketch artist?

by Christopher B. Daly

Plenty.

The little-known artist Alfred Waud was one of the most important “visual journalists” covering the greatest conflict in American history. Along with the young Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, Waud was assigned to cover the fighting, including the critical Battle of Gettysburg, by drawing sketches that could quickly be converted into engravings that could be printed along with text in the pages of newspapers like Harper’s Weekly.

Much better known are the photographs of Mathew Brady (and his less-well-known team of assistants). But Brady’s photos, for all their power and terribly beauty, all suffered from the technical limitations of the mid-19th century. In order for the chemical emulsions used in photography to leave an impression on the glass or metal plates, the camera’s shutter had to be left open for a comparatively long time — at least several seconds. As a result, cameras in the Civil War era were unable to stop action. If the subject was moving, the image would be blurred.

So, it fell to sketch artists to capture any scene involving motion or action.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly.
Library of Congress.

Now, a professor at Northern Kentucky University has used a Waud sketch to try to learn more about the crucial fighting that took place in Gettysburg, Pa., from July 1 to July 3, 1865. Emeritus Prof. Michael C.C. Adams argues that the sketch by Waud can be used to deduce the distance at which the opposing forces opened fire on each other. Many more Waud sketches can be found online or at the Library of Congress.

In the history of journalism, those Civil War sketches are some of the first examples of illustrating the news in a documentary fashion. Hats off to those brave sketch artists who got right up to the front lines armed with nothing more than a palette and some chalk.

 Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg. Library of Congress


Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg.
Library of Congress

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Filed under Journalism, journalism history, Photojournalism