If there is anyone who understands the importance of newspapers, it’s Ben Bradlee Jr. and his father, Ben Bradlee.
The son was in charge of the Boston Globe’s investigative team – known as Spotlight – when they broke the story of the massive coverup by the Catholic Church to hide the molesting being done by priests. The senior Bradlee was executive editor of The Washington Post when it broke the story about the Watergate scandal.
Those stories were so big that they both have been made into movies. “Spotlight,” starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, opens Friday, Nov. 20. “All the President’s Men” was released in 1976 and went on to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture.
There was some hesitation on Bradlee and his Spotlight staff about their story being made into a movie. It’s been the general rule of journalism that the reporter doesn’t become part of the story.
They decided to move forward because of the state of newspapers at this time.
“We are all concerned about where we are at this time in journalism because newspapers are struggling and laying people off,” Bradlee says. “So we all loved the message that the film underscores, which is the importance of good investigative journalism in a democracy and the dangers of not having it.”
Bradlee points out that newspapers are dealing with generations who believe they should get their newspapers for free. No business can survive if they are giving their product away.
This perspective comes from a lifetime of seeing his father work in newspapers and Bradlee’s own long career. As a teen, he worked as a copy boy at the Boston Globe and after a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, Bradlee joined the Riverside Press-Enterprise before being hired at the Boston Globe.
Despite his father’s legacy, it wasn’t a given that Bradlee would become a newspaper man. He has no qualms about the direction his career has taken. It’s just the state of newspapers that give him pause.
Bradlee stresses the importance of local newspapers and even if readers no longer want to read a printed version, they need to pay any online fees to support local newspapers.
“If there is no one there to be a watchdog, then there’s going to be more and more corruption,” Bradlee says.
He’s seen that point for years but never more clearly than the story that earned the Spotlight team the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Their work inspired newspapers around the globe to do their own investigations and found this pattern of abuse and cover-ups wasn’t confined to Boston.
All that came from an old-fashioned style of journalism. Instead of social media, the reporters under Bradlee’s charge spent a lot of time on the street or the telephone trying to track down new leads.
Bradlee is certain that if this story broke today, the Internet would have magnified the impact of the story sooner. The way the story was reported would have been no different today than it was in 2001.
He does joke that the reporting process would have been easier because of the advances in technology. An online spreadsheet they built to figure out which of the priests were involved took a massive amount of man hours 14 years ago.
“We were just on the cusp of the Internet era and it was so very much the shoe leather era,” Bradlee says.
That shoe leather era was certainly the norm when his father was guiding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through their Watergate investigation. As for him and his father being part of stories that become movies, Bradlee says in both cases it was a leap of faith in having a story turned into a film.
Bradlee’s father always told him that, for better or worse, he would always be remembered as Jason Robards, who played the senior Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.” The young Bradlee will have to deal with comparisons to “Mad Men” star John Slattery.
Both moved forward because Bradlee is convinced a movie affects people in a different way than a hard newspaper story.
“People might see the film who would have never read the story originally,” Bradlee says. “We are hopeful as a result of the film more survivors will come forward and it will give journalism, especially print journalism which is in a bad way in this country right now, a shot in the arm.”