When Ben Bradlee visited UND

Famed newspaper editor, featured in 2018 Oscar-nominated ‘The Post,’ foretold pitfalls of celebrity journalism

Ben Bradlee at UND in 1977

Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee talks with UND journalism students during a visit in 1977. His leadership and journalistic ethics are the subjects of the 2018 Oscar-nominated movie, “The Post.” Photo by Richard Larson/UND Today.

This year, one of the biggest motion pictures in the country is “The Post.”

It recounts the tense journalistic moments experienced by the editorial staffs of The Washington Post and The New York Times, but specifically The Post, in 1971, on whether to publish stories about a 30-year cover up surrounding the Vietnam War that would be damaging to the Nixon Administration and others.

A key figure in the tale – in real life and in the movie’s portrayal – is then-Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, played in the film by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks alongside another Academy all-star in Meryl Streep, who shines as Katharine “Kay” Graham, then publisher of The Post.

The Steven Spielberg-directed movie has already grossed more than $67 million in the U.S. alone and is nominated for two Academy Awards for best actress, Streep, and best picture.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep

Academy Award-winning tandem Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s Oscar-nominated, “The Post.” Image courtesy of Photo Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox.

Star journalists

In March, when those awards are handed out, it will be almost 40 years to the day since the real Ben Bradlee visited UND to talk about his role in publishing information from the leaked “Pentagon Papers.” The top-secret documents revealed decades of deep pessimism by multiple administrations about chances for success in Vietnam, contrary to a more optimistic public outlook.

While at UND on March 31, 1977, Bradlee also talked about two of his star journalists at The Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who, with the help of a well-sourced leaker, ultimately forced President Nixon to resign for his role in another cover up – the burglary of the Democratic National Headquarters in Washington D.C.’s Watergate building.

Bradlee was paid $2,000 for his UND appearance, which he made on a Midwest swing while promoting his new book “Conversations with Kennedy.”

‘Read not heard’

UND’s Dakota Student newspaper wrote about Bradlee’s talk at the time, focusing on some helpful advice that Bradlee received as a young journalist covering the Kennedy Administration.

“I was at a convention in the 1960s when a General Motors executive came up to me and said, ‘Bradlee, if you want to amount to anything in this business, you stick close to Dick Nixon,'” said Bradlee, as quoted by the student paper.

Bradlee could never have known at the time what that friendly suggestion might hold in store for American history and modern investigative journalism.  He took the advice to heart and a few years later his paper defied Nixon and government legal threats and published the Pentagon Papers anyway. Then “some men attempted to break into the Watergate complex,” said Bradlee in a the-rest-is-history sort of way.

Despite the fact his paper’s reporting on “Watergate” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, made heroes out of everyday journalists and led to another famous film that glorified the work of newspaper reporters, “All the President’s Men” (1976), Bradlee wasn’t exactly thrilled about the spotlight it created.

Bradlee said that he always believed that journalists should be read and not heard, be in the audience and not on the stage, and go to press conferences instead of holding them.

“But I’m probably here because you couldn’t get Woodward or Bernstein – or even Jason Robards,” Bradlee joked to his UND audience, acknowledging his two cracker-jack reporters who became instant celebrities as much as journalists after Watergate, and Robards, the true celebrity of the bunch who won an Academy Award for playing Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.”

Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee

Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham and Executive Editor Ben Bradlee leave U.S. District Court after a ruling allowing The Post to continue publishing the “Pentagon Papers.” Graham and Bradlee made for a strong team as they tested the bounds of journalism, the First Amendment and national security in the early 1970s.

Formidable team

Spielberg’s “The Post” stops just short of the Watergate investigation and the heroics of Woodward and Bernstein – in fact the movie ends as the burglary is being foiled by an unsuspecting janitor at the Watergate building.

Unlike “All the President’s Men,” which played up Bradlee’s role in the everyday operations of The Washington Post, Spielberg’s new movie more closely follows the personal and professional struggles of Kay Graham, who suddenly finds herself in what had traditionally been a man’s world, in charge of the family-owned newspaper, after the death of her husband. The movie does, however, show what a formidable team Bradlee and Graham made as they tested the bounds of journalism, the First Amendment and national security.

And for a packed-room UND audience in 1977, Bradlee brought the gravity of those tense days home.

He was more than just a paid speaker. He was history personified only five short years removed from a journalistic tectonic shift he helped trigger.

Former UND Today staff writer Richard Larson, who took this story’s lead photo of Ben Bradlee, contributed to this report.