A friend and I had just seen a movie with a soft-spoken and obscenity-free editor, a balding Boy Scout of the city room. Now she wondered if my novel hadn’t sinned in making such a wild character out of George McWilliams, editor at the fictitious Washington Telegram. Her message couldn’t have been clearer. Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, would never behave like my Mac.
Some of Bradlee’s enemies would emphatically disagree. I won’t take a stand. But here’s the real point: I wasn’t even writing about the Washington Post. I had created my own Washington, with its own morning newspaper. The duty of a novelist isn’t to report facts but to convey basic truths, and ideally to entertain the reader along the way. By blending in details from different newspapers, I could write a better book. Until recently, by the way, Sam Zell lorded it over the Chicago Tribune and sister newspapers, rode a motorcycle and supposedly said was fine for his people to watch porn on the job as long as they’re productive. He was an owner, not an editor, but you get the idea: different cultures sprout up in different newsrooms or at least different executive suites (no, I’m not accusing Trib journalists of taking up Zell on his offer!).
At a deeper level, if someone asks if parallels existed in the 1970s between the Post and the Telegram in the treatment of federal landlords, I’ll plead ignorance and mean it. I’d love to know why the Post and other local papers didn’t make more out of the relationship between Sen. Abraham Ribicoff and Charles Smith, the biggest of the landlords—especially after the NBC evening news spotlighted Ribicoff’s hidden investment in a CIA-occupied building through a Smith partnership. Fear of loss of real estate ads? Or something more innocuous? Maybe a series of overlapping friendships existed, making the Post less curious than it might have been otherwise. Art Buchwald, the late humor columnist and close friend of Bradlee, was even a Smith investor. And David Broder, the political columnist, suggested Abe Ribicoff as a vice presidential possibility—-perhaps reflecting some other Post people’s fondness for Ribicoff, which was also abundantly evident in the paean of an obit. Last but not least, the Key Building story could simply have been up against the Not Invented Here Syndrome; perhaps the Post preferred to focus on original stories rather than devote resources to verifying mine.
Bottom line: The Post is not the Telegram, and Bradlee isn’t George McWilliams, who, incidentally, is Brooklyn-born and in many ways is the antithesis of a Bradlee-style Boston Brahmin.
Some positives about the Old Guard at the Post: Let me also throw in some positives about the Bradlee-era at the Post despite my disappointment over the paper’s less-than-complete coverage of Ribicoff-related matters. Not long ago, maybe partly as a way of showing it didn’t want to live in the past, the Post painted over a lobby collage that included Bradlee and Katharine Graham. That, I think, may have been a mistake—especially in the era of the Net, when newspapers have to distinguish themselves from other media. Say all the nice things you want about the Post’s Slate magazine, of which I’m a fan, and from which visitors to the Post will see pages on a high-resolution monitor in the lobby. But where was Slate during the fuss over Watergate and the Pentagon Papers? Maybe the best solution would be four monitors in the outer lobby to display not only Slate, Newsweek.com and washingtonpost.com but also scenes from the Post‘s past.
Related: Deep Throat is dead—and so are the old rules of investigative journalism.
Photo credit: Jack Weir (image released into the public domain).