The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Ben Bradlee back-story

OK, this starts with Miller - the Boston Phoenix contribution to the olla podrida [1].

The lede is a shout-out to the movie version of All the President's Men with a quote from the legend that is Ben Bradlee [2]. A fuller version of the quote comes in this review of Bradlee's autobiography from what looks like a right-wing site [3]:
We don't print the truth. We don't pretend to print the truth. We print what people tell us. It's up to the public to decide what is true.

A version of the quote came up in a 2002 edition of Larry King in which Bradlee, David Frost and Bob Schieffer (who I don't know) discuss a series on Nixon about to be broadcast, including extracts from the Frost interviews.

King says Nixon tells Frost
...Ben Bradlee, wrote a couple or three months ago something to the effect that as far as his newspaper was concerned, he said we don't print the truth, we print what we know. We print what people tell us. And sometimes we print lies.

The King show proceeds:
BRADLEE: Well, if you think about it for one minute, is absolutely obvious. One of the lies that we printed...

KING: Is his quote.

BRADLEE: Is his quote. When he said that he couldn't talk about Watergate because it involved matters of national security. Well, you know, it just didn't. It just didn't. It was a lie.

Clearly, Bradlee was standing behind his quote.

From one of the key figures in a legendary newspaper story, this bald statement of the fundamental tenet of objective journalism comes as something a surprise (the versions noted below [3] have a rather different complexion). I'd never heard the quote before - I've never seen the movie - but I suspect it's familiar to older members of the trade.

The Phoenix reading of the quote, in the Miller context, is perverse: it says
Miller, her fellow reporters, and their editors had forgotten the Ben Bradlee rule.

Whereas, surely, they had followed the rule to the letter: they had published Chalabi's bollocks in all their hideousness - and (with such helpful hints as there were about the integrity of their sources buried well inside the paper) let their readers decide what to believe.

In the world of objective journalism, as encapsulated by Bradlee, the Truth has nothing to do with the case: even a kibitzer like your humble blogger was convinced by the back-end of 2002 that Chalabi could not be trusted as far as you could throw him. Long before then, Miller knew this, as did Raines, Keller, Rumsfeld, Powell, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. Chalabi functioned as a useful idiot - though he was working his own angles, of course - to provide everyone with what they wanted, and no questions asked. Means to an end.

Under Bradlee's Rule, the Times printed what Chalabi told it. Mission accomplished. All the rest is confused revisionism.

  1. Beneath a photo of Miller looking like Dracula's daughter - or is it Jaws? - one reads the caption
    BIRD WATCH: Miller uncritically parroted the White House. Now the Times has to scrape up the mess.
    Some copy-editor needs to take a lie-down...

  2. He says he's
    quoting from memory
    - why? Why can't he check the script? (The only online version of the script is the pre-rehearsal version, which doesn't have the line quoted. An actual journalist shouldn't rely on Mr Google, though, should he?)

  3. A still fuller version in this list of quotes - from another right-wing site:
    To hell with the news! I'm no longer interested in the news. I'm interested in causes. We don't print the truth. We don't pretend to print the truth. We print what people tell us. It's up to the public to decide what's true. -
    The Houston Review places the remarks at a Smithsonian Institution symposium. If it's used in the 1976 movie, it must have been some kind of Bradlee catchphrase.

    The piece is reviewing a book of gotcha quotes You Don't Say: Sometimes Liberals Show Their True Colors which includes Lyndon Johnson's

    I'll have them niggers voting Democratic for the next two hundred years.
    - from 1964-5, I surmise.

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