PBS Chat Between Jim Lehrer and Ben Bradlee Touched on Janet Cooke, JFK

Monday night's hour of conversation between PBS anchor Jim Lehrer and long-time Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, titled "Free Speech,"  was a cozy liberal-media insider chat, but awfully dull -- dull enough to make you feel for journalism students that are going to be forced to watch it in class. Cozy snippet example number one is Lehrer asking Bradlee near the end: "One of the other cliches they say about folks like you and me, people who practice journalism is that, we pessimistic; that we're cynical. You don't buy that, do you?" Perish the thought.

Perhaps the frankest moment for Bradlee was admitting that the WashPost editors all bought the Janet Cooke eight-year-old-drug-addict story because she was black and went to neighborhoods they never visited:

BRADLEE: Yeah, it was written by a rising star, which automatically gave it a certain minor acceptance. It was written about an area of town where no editors hang out, no editors live. No managing editors or, God knows, executive editors hang out there. And the reputation of the reporter was such that, nobody challenged that.

LEHRER: Picking up on something related to this, as we were talking about and, the idea that you cited it as an example of the Janet--one of the reasons the Janet Cooke story got through the system at the "Post" was that, the "Post" editors and the "Post" reporters, people who were supposedly supervising her came from elite or very different backgrounds. They didn't live in those neighborhoods or whatever. Is that a problem?

BRADLEE: Let's say the obvious.

LEHRER: Yeah.

BRADLEE: That Janet Cooke was black. The people she was writing about were black and she was writing about blacks who lived in a slum neighborhood. I don't get there often and neither do the people--I mean, that, that was a very unspoken dimension of that and I don't see why people can't speak about it.

The other part that was modestly interesting was Lehrer asking Bradlee about his friendship with John F. Kennedy. Here's a good sign of how Lehrer wasn't pressing Bradlee like he was holding a politician's feet to the fire. It felt more like an after-dinner chat between pals.

LEHRER: Did you ever--professionally, did you ever run stories by him or--

BEN BRADLEE: No...

Stop. And on page 239 of Bradlee's memoir, A Good Life, he writes of how he squeezed FBI documents out of Kennedy to help him disprove the rumor that JFK had married another woman named Durie Malcolm: "To get the documents, I had to agree to show the finished story to Kennedy before it would run. I had never made that deal before. I never did it again."

Bradlee tells this story as part of how he landed back in Kennedy's good graces after JFK was angered by a 1962 story in Look magazine about how the Kennedys berated the press, and how it had ruined his weekly, sometimes twice-weekly dinners at JFK's White House.  Bradlee wrote the Look piece was an exaggeration, "since everyone agreed Kennedy enjoyed beter relations with the press than any president ever." Here's more:

LEHRER: Do you think you did anything wrong in getting so close to John F. Kennedy?

BRADLEE: No. I mean, well, because it got me a lot of good stories and I understood that administration. I knew what was going on.

LEHRER: Did there ever come a time, Ben-- this is a difficult question. But did there ever come a time that you knew something or had an angle on a story involving Kennedy where you pulled a punch--

BRADLEE: No.

LEHRER: --because he was your friend?

BRADLEE: I didn't pull a punch. Sometimes he said, in conversation, you can't use this before he told me. And I either told him--I remember once saying, "Well, don't tell me then if I can't use it, because I'm real close to getting it."

LEHRER: You said many times that John F. Kennedy was your friend. You spent a lot of time with him, but you were unaware of his womanizing.

BRADLEE: Yeah, well--

LEHRER: And people are skeptical about that, as you know.

BRADLEE: Oh, tell me about it. They're always--

LEHRER: Yeah, they won't believe it.

BRADLEE: They're more than skeptical. They don't believe it.

LEHRER: Yeah.

BRADLEE: Well, here's, here's what I'm telling you the truth is. The times that I saw him were overwhelmingly with his wife and with my wife. So, you can just imagine, a little, cozy foursome around the table. You're not going to talk about maybe girlfriends.

LEHRER: Did you hear the gossip at the time?

BRADLEE: I heard--you know, my father, I can remember my dad saying, isn't he a fearful girler, my dad asked me.

LEHRER: Fearful girler?

BRADLEE: Girler, that's an old-fashioned word.

LEHRER: Direct question: If you had known about it at the time, would you have done a story?

BRADLEE: I suppose if I knew that he had made one mistake, I doubt if I would have and nobody knew about it, didn't create any fuss, I probably wouldn't. But if--you know, he had such an image as the head of this charming, totally American, beautiful family. Children were, you know--

LEHRER: It would not have met the journalistic test as a president running around on his wife, the charmed family, it wouldn't have met the, hey, that's a story?

BRADLEE: I guess, especially because they, they were making such a thing about how--what a perfect family they were.

LEHRER: Yeah.

BRADLEE: I think I probably would have.

LEHRER: But in the present climate, some reporter knew that, that would be on the front page of every newspaper in America.

BRADLEE: Try it and it certainly would, yeah. I think things have changed.

LEHRER: Is that for the better or for the worse?

BRADLEE: Well, I'm a maximum information man myself, but I sure as hell would have liked to have known about it.

LEHRER: Like to have known about Kennedy, you mean?

BRADLEE: Yeah and made the decision and then, at least you're straight with yourself. You're not, you're not making mistakes by mistake. You're doing something on purpose.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis