Tim Giago: Walking in the footsteps of the late Ben Bradlee

Tim Giago and Ben Bradlee (1921-2014). File photo courtesy Tim Giago

Remembering Ben Bradlee in Indian Country
Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Native Sun News

There are faculty luncheons and dinners at Harvard throughout the year. It was at one of these functions in 1990 that I first met Ben Bradlee, the esteemed editor of the Washington Post.

Most of my Nieman Fellow classmates gathered around Bradlee and our curator, Bill Kovach and asked him questions or just listened as he expounded upon the good and evil of new reporting. They were all extremely interested in how he had the courage to publish the Watergate stories in the face of heavy pressure from the Richard Nixon Administration.

I still had a lot of the Indian reservation-reserve or some would say reservation-shyness left in me to jump into the discussion so I stood aside, nursed my soft drink and listened and learned. As the crowd moved away from Bradlee and scattered amongst the other guests I noticed Kovach still talking to Bradlee and he nodded in my direction.

As I was speaking with John Carlson, a Nieman Fellow from the Des Moines Register in Iowa, someone tapped me on the shoulder held out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Ben Bradlee.” I shook his hand and told him I was honored to make his acquaintance.

He said, “All of the Nieman Fellows here are news reporters or journalists of some sort, but you are the only Nieman Fellow that is an editor and publisher of a newspaper.” I told him it was a small Native American newspaper named Indian Country Today and our job was to cover the Native American communities of South Dakota and America.

Bradlee assured me that it was an important newspaper because it was providing news to the least covered people in America. He told me that the main function of a newspaper was to cover the news for its community. “Nearly every small town in America has a community newspaper and they are not all Pulitzer Prize prospects, but they are doing a vital job of providing a news service to the people living in the communities they serve.”

I told him about the early-day assaults upon my newspaper when the windows of the paper were blasted out by bullets on three occasions and of the firebombing of our paper in December of 1982. He shook his head and said, “I thought that only happened to the newspapers in the deep-south during the civil rights movement.”

He said there was a time during Watergate that he saw the fear in the eyes and on the faces of his two key reporters Woodward and Bernstein. “It was a big story and something that had never been done by the Post so there was a lot of uncertainty and yes – fear.”

It was comforting speaking with Bradlee. He was down to earth and it was like talking to an editor of a small town newspaper because the magnitude of the newspaper’s focus was the same for a large metropolitan paper as it was for a small weekly newspaper covering Indian Country.

Newspapers large and small have issues that have to be addressed such as political ineptitude, stories that moved the heart and bring tears to the eye, corruption, theft, murder, high school and college graduations, and articles on great achievers in the community that were changing the face of their communities for the better.

I asked Bradlee what was the hardest part of being the editor of the Washington Post. He said, “You’d be surprised because everyone thinks the hardest part is dealing with the federal government or the Grahams, but actually the hardest part is dealing with your employees. Good employees can make the newspaper and bad ones can sink it.”

Over these many years since that night Bradlee’s words about employees has stuck with me the longest time because I have been graced with very good news reporters and bad ones and I believe that the success of my newspapers to date has been that I have had more good reporters than bad ones.

Would Watergate have made it to the news if Bradlee did not have Woodward and Bernstein? He had to place complete faith in their reporting because if they were wrong, it could have been disastrous for the Washington Post.

On a much smaller scale I can walk in Bradlee’s footsteps.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com

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