Ben Bradlee Jr. ’70 talks career, future of journalism

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Ben Bradlee Jr. ’70 had only been working at the Boston Globe for a few months. However, as the only person in the newsroom who could speak Farsi, Bradlee volunteered himself to be sent to a country that, at the time, few Americans could find on a map.

Bradlee worked at the Globe for 25 years, and has sustained an accomplished career as an author and investigative journalist. While he left the paper in 2004, his work as Deputy Managing Editor for the Globe’s Spotlight Team and the investigation of sexual abuse committed by clergy in the Catholic Church earned him and his team a Pulitzer Prize, and was the basis for the Academy Award Winning movie, Spotlight.

As a student at Colby, Bradlee majored in government, and despite coming from  journalistic pedigree (his father, Ben Bradlee was the Executive Editor for the Washington Post) news writing of any sort was far from Bradlee’s mind. “I was totally immersed in hockey at that stage in my life,” he said.  He played on the varsity men’s team for three years, crossing sticks with students at UNH and Northeastern in the days before division III. After graduating, Bradlee decided to join the Peace Corps. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life and it was a chance to travel and to see a different part of the world that you otherwise would never have gotten to see,” he said.

Bradlee served on the Peace Corps for two years in Afghanistan, during which he learned the Afghani dialect of Farsi—known as Dari—while he served. His journalistic career began when his boss at the Corps, an editor on leave for the Riverside Press-Enterprise in Riverside, CA, offered him a job. Upon his return to the U.S. he worked at the Press-Enterprise for three years, most notably covering the story of a black activist who was put on trial three times and acquitted for the murder of two white policemen. He left the Press-Herald to write a book on the case, titled The Ambush Murders, which was published in 1979 and later adapted into a TV movie. Soon after, Bradlee made his way to Boston.

The Globe sent Bradlee to Afghanistan to report on the outbreak of the Soviet-Afghan War. It was nearing a decade since he had last been in the country, and the place he once knew was unrecognizable. “The airport was an armed camp occupied by the Russians and they had invited invented in western correspondents to try and sell the notion that they had been invited in by [Afghanistan] and that it was not an invasion. But that didn’t fly, and after about 10 days there, [we] got a knock on the door of our hotel and they were throwing us out of the country,” he said. After being sent to New Delhi, he and his fellow journalists tried to sneak back into the country, but were busted at the border. Nonetheless, Bradlee returned to the Globe with his first experience with international journalism, establishing his career as an investigative reporter and editor.

The Spotlight Team’s report on the sex abuse scandal came at the end of Bradlee’s tenure at the Globe. He had spent 10 years as a reporter and 15 on the editorial staff, working in different managing positions before overseeing the Spotlight Team as the Deputy Managing Editor. In his time he wrote and edited a bevy of investigative pieces, but few had the same lasting influence as this story which, in his words, “took off like a rocket ship.”

“I don’t think journalists always know how a story will be received or what impact it will have. In my experience, I had many stories that I thought were terrific which for one reason or another it didn’t take off the way this church story did,.” He said. Those under-received stories Bradlee mentions, included previous reports on abusive clergy in the Greater Boston Area. “As the Metropolitan Editor I had overseen aggressive coverage of other priests accused of sexual abuse, but we weren’t able to get the internal church documents that took the story as far as it did in this case, so the Church was able to allege media bias.” It was the concrete evidence of internal cover up that ratified the investigation and spurred the reports of similar accounts across the world. Bradlee and his team soon realized that they had exposed an epidemic of abuse in the Church on an international scale.

In the 12 years since Bradlee left the Globe, the field of print journalism has faced growing financial hardship, mainly due to the proliferation of news access on the internet. With this, Bradlee is concerned that people are losing sight of the importance of print media, “In America and the world, you have a couple of generations of people now who have grown up with the idea that news should be free.” He continued, “younger people seem to be satisfied with scanning headlines and getting quick snippets of news for free, rather than diving deep and actually reading the paper thoroughly.” With the popularity of news aggregate sites like the Huffington Post, this sentiment does not come from a place of generational distaste. For many digital news sites, editing and repackaging reporting from a collection of sources instead of writing original content is relatively commonplace. With this practice, digital news organizations lack the investigative reporting of newspapers, which, to Bradlee, is a cause for concern. “Reporting is totally different. You are creating an original product, you are holding institutions accountable, and that is what democracy is all about.”

Thankfully, all is not yet lost in the land of printed news. As Bradlee puts, “Newspapers, despite their economic problems, are overwhelmingly still the source of news in this country. They still have the most reporters, so radio and television still rely on them to set the agenda. I am hopeful as we get through this shakeout period with the internet that newspapers will survive.”

Bradlee will be speaking in Lorimer Chapel on Monday, April 18 at 7 pm, presented by the Oak Institute for Human Rights.