Jeff Himmelman’s book, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee , concerns itself with a lot of bygone eras. Like Bradlee’s first stint at the Washington Post, from 1948 to 1951, a time of “newsboys yelling ‘EXTRA’ in the streets,” writes Himmelman. Or like the way that Bill Green, the paper’s ombudsman, tapped out his legendary April 1981 report on the Janet Cooke affair on a manual typewriter.
Yet there’s a current of modernity that runs through the biography, almost a whiff of the Internet. It’s the commenters — or letter writers, as they were known in Bradlee’s time. They were often nasty, as in this missive from April 11, 1976:
Recently on TV there have been film clips of the neww movie “All The President’s Men” with Jason Robards playing the part of Ben Bradlee.
I hope, to be authentic, when the full picture is shown, it shows Ben Bradlee eating [excrement], specifically, Kennedy [excrement] which you so dearly relish. My hope is that you get a malignant cancer in your gut, and die a slow death, you miserable [unprintable smear starting with a “c” and ending in “er”].
In Himmelman’s volume, there’s no name attached to that flaming letter. Which is poetic, given how it portends the polemical writing, the strong, unequivocal sentences and the misanthropy in the comments sections of news sites these days. “That was a real exception in Ben’s inbox. That was an exception and it’s much more common now,” says Himmelman.
Bradlee took a non-discriminatory approach in responding to his critics. “One of the things I found in researching the book was that Ben basically responded to everything he got,” says Himmelman.
And that trait gives Bradlee something in common with the web experts that I’ve listened to many times at conferences and in-house teach-ins. Engage with commenters. Respond to their quibbles and objections. Show the community that you care. QED: Ben Bradlee, web pioneer.
Consider, too: Bradlee in a 1982 interview said, “[I]f a person is looking for a 1972 blue Mustang with whitewalls, and if he can type that into his computer and come up with three such Mustangs for sale in the Washington area, that would scare me if I were running the classified ad department.”