Truth Above Everything: ‘The Newspaperman’

by Janet Donovan

HBO screens film about the life of famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

HBO’s ‘The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” was released on December 4. (Photo courtesy HBO.)

In the new Washington Post building on 13th & K streets, NW there’s a glass enclosed space called the Ben Bradlee Conference Room. There’s also a picture of of the famed Post executive editor on its exterior alongside one of his famous quotes: “The truth no matter how bad is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run.”

At the screening of HBO’s film “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee,” his widow Sally Quinn said, “The most important thing about this film is how important the truth is … the lie that is the enemy of the people and not the journalists who expose it.” Slated for release on Dec. 4, the film centers around her late husband’s tenure at the Post from 1968 to 1991. During the presidency of Richard Nixon, Bradlee became a national figure when he challenged the federal government over the right to publish “The Pentagon Papers” and oversaw the paper’s investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal. “Ben hated lying,” Quinn continued, “It drove him crazy. And although he used to say, ‘We print lies every day because people lie to us,’ he also said that the truth will emerge.”

Sally and Ben met after she applied for a position at the Post. She was so taken with him that after she didn’t get the job the first time around, she came back and interviewed for a Style section job two years later. When he asked to see something she had written and she responded that she had no clips, he said ‘well nobody’s perfect … you’re hired.’

“Newspaperman” premiered at the Newseum with a cadre of both former and current Post journalists relaying their “Bradlee tales” to an attentive audience, none more important than the then-cub reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein whose sleuth reporting helped take down a sitting president.

We wondered how Bradlee took such a chance on these two given their youth, but it has been said that Ben always ran with his instincts. “He supported us. He was a shield,” said Woodward.

“We thought we shouldn’t be on this story because we didn’t have enough experience,” added Bernstein. “Ben’s interest was in getting the story, and getting it right, and being fair, and respectful to the people we were covering, and that really is the legacy.” As to whether the two ever felt threatened, they said they did get paranoid a bit, but were more afraid of making mistakes. How concerned they were about the freedom of the press under the current administration? Both said that you can’t be a citizen and not worry about that all the time, but also agreed that the press is basically in a sound position – strong and doing very good work.

“Growing up Bradlee was different. It was wonderful. It was magical. It was very traditional,” said Quinn Bradlee who for the longest time wanted to do a film about his father before eventually offering it to HBO where CEO Richard Plepler picked it up. “None of this, would have been possible if it were not for the inspiration, vision, passion and the instinct of Quinn Bradlee,” Plepler said.

After listening to Bradlee’s book recording, director John Maggio said that he “absolutely fell in love” with him as a character. Maggio was most surprised to learn about Bradlee’s intimate relationship with John F. Kennedy, which he describes as adding another dimension to his personality.

“Democracy dies in darkness and nobody understood that more viscerally than Ben did,” Plepler concluded. “Anybody who’s great at anything has a little bit of an extra gene. Ben had two extra genes. He had an extra gene for journalism and he had an extra gene for life. What the filmmakers have captured here is how those two things can gel to create a remarkable life and a remarkable man.”

This story and photos from the screening appear in the Holiday 2017 issue of Washington Life magazine.

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