I only met Ben Bradlee once—when I was in charge of a brigade of ruffians who invaded his beautiful house in Georgetown with cables, lights, and electronic gear so that his wife, Sally Quinn, could have an intimate chat with Ted Koppel—but I mourn his passing. He was one of those leaders I have come to call “The Grown-Ups.”
The sort of boss who might not be your favorite person but who would have your back in times of crisis and, if necessary, wait until the office door was closed to read you the riot act. Who would release a statement like “we stand by our reporting” and then just ignore the opinion pages.
After I’d been a motorcycle courier for ABC News, I suffered through six months as a paralegal at the biggest of the Washington law firms while I was trying to get back into television. One of my jobs was to attack a six-foot high printout of television program logs and create a table of every minute that a Washington Post station had broadcast “Kimba: The White Lion.” Nixon’s supporters had gone after their broadcast licenses claiming that weren’t paying the mandated attention to the public interest. We were proving that, indeed, “Kimba” was an educational children’s program and it counted towards the mandatory 3 hour minimum.
I’m not trying to defend “Kimba,” or for that matter the long-lost idea that broadcasters have a duty to work in the “public interest”—I’m just demonstrating how much pressure the Nixon White House was putting on Bradlee and the Post. It wasn’t just “t** in the wringer” insults and “nattering nabobs of negativism” speeches. Every aspect of the Washington Post was under attack, from advertisers to broadcast revenue, IRS audits, and investigations of sexual preferences. It was an all-out attempt to crush the paper and Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham withstood it with determination, grace, and a sense of humor.
Others weren’t so lucky. A correspondent at ABC News did a story on campaign money being laundered through Bebe Rebozo’s bank in Miami. His bosses were much more pliable—some of them having worked for the White House under Eisenhower—so he was told to recant the story, he refused, he was fired, and the anchor recanted for him.
Much later, I was the executive producer of Don Imus’ program on MSNBC. I had a few difficulties with things Imus would say (by re-airing one of them, I cost NBC $32, 000,) but I knew that Bob Wright was at NBC and Mel Karmazin was at CBS. They’d been through this sort of thing before—in the case of Howard Stern, many times before—and they were used to it. They knew that the job of a shock jock was to be outrageous and controversial and so, when they were outrageous and controversial, the bosses sucked it up, ignored the outraged commentaries and indignant protests, and went right on with business.
(Not everyone was so calm. I landed at LaGuardia one afternoon after a show in Boston and my pager showed dozens of messages. I got to a pay phone and called in to one of the top executives at MSNBC. He asked frantically, “Terry, what’s going on? Imus called the President of NBC News a fat liar today.” I responded, “You haven’t been listening. Don has called that guy a ‘fat liar’ twice a day for months.”)
The point is that Wright and Karmazin were Grown-Ups. Like Bradlee, they knew when they were in the right and weren’t about to be pushed around by anyone. Sadly, these men and women are passing from the scene.
When Imus made his infamous statement about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, I was no longer on the front deck. I might have hit the Dump button on the 7-second delay because I knew that attacking people who were not “public figures” was a Really Bad Idea. On the other hand, I might not and I would have defended that decision.
What amazed me was how quickly all the executives caved. Within hours, Imus was gone. They didn’t consult the Imus production staff, they didn’t talk to Imus, and, as a matter of fact, they broke his contract which contained very specific clauses in case the man hired to say shocking things said something shocking. I could be wrong but my memory was that CBS eventually had to pay millions to Imus for breach of contract.
OK, that was a case where the comment was seen as anti-black and anti-women and I guess I could understand the brass getting righteously upset. On the other hand, they could have asked the Executive Producer (who was black) or the Show Producer (who was a woman) if they were offended (they weren’t) but let’s not quibble.
What was really disturbing was when MSNBC correspondent and occasional anchor David Shuster used the term “pimp out” in a question about Chelsea Clinton’s campaigning and was summarily suspended and soon fired. In context, the phrase was a bit over the top but I thought it was completely within the bounds of political discourse. Once again, the brass threw him under the bus but, rather than just eliminating a rude shock jock, I am convinced that their lack of backbone was due to fear of a political backlash and that’s a death knell to any truly honest political reporting.
I could be wrong but that’s my opinion.
Regardless, I’ll bet their reaction sent a message to everyone at MSNBC. Since it was clear that, if they got the slightest push-back on a story, management would fold like a cheap suit; they knew not to take chances, not to be tough on politicians, and not to be aggressive. I’ve seen it at all the other networks, young managers wilting under the smallest amount of pressure and leaving their reporters and producers in the lurch.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would never have written the stories that brought down a president we now know was corrupt and completely without a moral compass without the support of their bosses. People who’d been in a brawl or two and knew how to take a punch as well as give one.
People like Ben Bradlee.