'The Last Editor': Ben Bradlee and 'The Ear'
"The Last Editor"
Jim Bellows' career in journalism spanned six decades and took him to newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet. His wry and insightful recollections can be found in his new book, "The Last Editor" (Andrews McMeel Publishing).
This third part of a four-part series excerpted from the book recounts Bellows' tweaking of the Washington Post and its renowned editor, Ben Bradlee.
Another David-and-Goliath story took place on the Potomac when I took on Ben Bradlee, Mrs. [Katharine] Graham and the Washington Post. In the process I tried to bring some fun and excitement to the Washington Star newsroom. One of my weapons was the infamous gossip column, The Ear, which tweaked the Post and tried to get them into our pond. In my battles with the media establishment, Goliath never died. But I always challenged the status quo and championed the underdog. Early on, I had spotted Washington's curious appetite for gossip. Here's what happened:
In January 1975, I was off on another suicide mission, this time to try to save the venerable Washington Star.
So the year after Nixon left town on a rail, I arrived. A Texas multimillionaire name Joe Allbritton, who had made fortunes in the funeral homes and banking businesses, had bought the paper and hired me to become its editor. He knew of the changes I had wrought at the New York Herald Tribune in its glorious final days and thought I could bring similar incandescence to the Star, perhaps with a better outcome.
Joe found me at the Los Angeles Times, which I affectionately called the "velvet coffin" because of the generosity it showed its editorial staff. I was the associate editor in charge of "soft news," and one of the popular features I had introduced was a gossip column by Joyce Haber.
"Are you going to start a gossip column in Washington, Jim?" I was asked at a farewell party.
"Oh, I don't think so. Gossip is trivial. Washington is a serious place."
That's how I saw it, in my naivete. Washington was sober, solemn. Look at all that white marble, the Library of Congress, the Capitol dome. Boy, did I have the wrong number.
On my first trip to the capital, I attended a couple of dinner parties and observed, to my astonishment, that Washington ran on gossip. Everyone loved to talk about everyone else. Who was doing what to whom? A famous Washington hostess summed it up when she said, "If you don't have anything nice to say about someone, come sit by me."
Gossip made the Washington world go round.
'Gossip isn't very nice'
So I decided that maybe a gossip column wasn't such a bad idea. I discussed it with the other Star editors, especially the talented head of our soft-news section, Mary Anne Dolan. She suggested a perky Brit named Diana McLellan who could write with wit and flair.
I called Diana McLellan to my office.
"Diana," I said "we are going to start a gossip column and you're going to write it."
She was aghast.
"Mr. Bellows, gossip isn't very nice. It's tacky and tawdry. There would be a public outcry. People would cancel their subscriptions. It would inflict pain. There's nothing you can say that would make me write a gossip column."
"We begin next Monday," I said.
"I'll get on the phone," said Diana.
Women's Wear Daily had a well-read column called "The Eye." We called our column "The Ear."
I knew it would take two people to do the job. The column would run without a byline, seven days of the week. I thought it would be controversial and people would want to see it daily. Two writers would assure that we'd never miss a day; not illness, vacation, rain, nor sleet would halt the column. So Louise Lague, a tall, talented reporter, joined up the next day as Diana's partner.
"The Ear" was the wickedest thing to hit the capital since the Nixon administration. It was audacious. It was insolent. It was fun. And it quickly became "must" reading throughout Washington.
I urged Diana and Louise to include coverage of the media, and it was fun to treat reporters as though they were movie stars. They loved it. I trace a lot of today's media self-importance to the unaccustomed attention we gave them. Robert Redford played a Washington journalist. Now there are a dozen Washington journalists playing Robert Redford.
A perfect target
The biggest celebrities in Washington were Ben Bradlee and his lovely roommate, Sally Quinn. The movie blockbuster "All the President's Men" was lighting up Washington's screens at this time. Ben Bradlee, the charismatic editor of the Washington Post, was a combination of all that is admirable in journalism and pop culture. He and Sally Quinn were the beautiful people of the Potomac. So we started making them regulars in "The Ear." We called them "The Fun Couple."
It was nothing personal.
All right, perhaps I was a little annoyed at how the Washington Post always referred to the Star as "the financially troubled Washington Star."
For a while I thought that was our name: The Financially Troubled Washington Star.
And you must understand something else.
After Watergate, Ben Bradlee was a huge, heroic, larger-than-life figure. Jason Robards had just won an Academy Award playing Ben on the screen. Robards/Bradlee was a noble, witty, astute editor in power stripes. (My contract for this book requires that if movie rights are sold, I must be played by my fellow Kenyon College graduate, Paul Newman.)
Ben Bradlee could be forgiven for being a little puffed up by the attention. So when "The Ear" targeted his Achilles heel it must have been particularly annoying. But after all, he was cavorting about with a much younger woman in his own newsroom. Did he expect that to go unnoticed?
On top of that, much of the news about Bradlee and Quinn was coming to us from his own newsroom. Ben threatened to fire anyone caught leaking information to "The Ear," but still it came.
Some of the leaks may have been inspired by jealousy. Sally Quinn was not uniformly adored in the Post newsroom. Some of her fellow journalists grumbled that the stories she brought in would not have been assigned to her if not for her relationship with the editor.
Most people gave Ben a wide berth. And here, "The Ear" had the temerity to make fun of His Eminence. "The Ear" would do to Ben Bradlee what Nixon and Colson never managed to do -- needle and embarrass him. But, of course, I had an advantage over Nixon: He only had the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS; I had Diana and Louise.
Ben was the perfect target for us, and I took delight in tweaking him. Not because I didn't like him -- I admired Ben enormously -- but because it worked wonders for the Star. When you are the second paper in a market, you have to position yourself against the first paper -- you have to be sassy and irreverent, and you have to get people talking.
(Next: The Herald Examiner vs. The Los Angeles Times)
Copyright 2001 Jim Bellows. Reprinted with permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.
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