April 8, 2011

I remember David S. Broder from the time I was in junior high school, watching “Meet the Press” on Sunday mornings, sitting with my father in his easy chair before we went to Mass. That was the era of moderator Lawrence Spivak, he of the tousled gray hair and sober, tough questions. It was also the unsettled days of the 1960s, when politics seemed especially important, the stakes were high and the world was changing.

I was fascinated even then by the journalists who sounded so authoritative and who could make sense of an uncertain time. Broder, who appeared some 400 times on that program, was one of them, always calm, avuncular, insightful and explanatory. The world didn’t seem so mysterious or chaotic after he spoke.

He talked about voters and politicians and policy as if they all were accessible and understandable and as if he knew them all intimately, which of course he did. Broder’s public figures and party activists were not celebrities or icons, however, just people of flesh and blood engaged in the participatory work of democracy.

At his memorial service last week, fittingly not in a church, as his sons pointed out, but in that shrine to the First Amendment, the National Press Club, an air of wistfulness settled over the room, as if an era had necessarily ended with Broder’s passing.

Broder’s son George summarized his father’s credo this way:

“To ask hard questions, to investigate and probe and analyze the issues of the day.

“To inform, educate and deliver” to readers the views of voters and politicians “in an unbiased, straightforward, honest way, with civility and respect for his fellow Americans.”

Donald Graham, The Washington Post Co.’s chief executive, said, “He was the best in the business . . . the best colleague in the world.” And Broder was “ethical in a most strait-laced way. He was the fairest of reporters. He made mistakes, and no one was more meticulous in correcting himself.”

Dan Balz, The Post’s veteran political reporter and a friend of Broder, concluded his eulogy by saying, “He is, I believe, irreplaceable.”

On this I differ. His era cannot be allowed to pass. Certainly the exact qualities of a David Broder cannot be re-created. But his journalism, his values, his ethics must be replicated, encouraged and bred in The Post’s newsroom alongside the Internet-era values of speed, agility and engagement.

To survive in the Internet era, journalists have had to embrace the language, techniques and technologies of America’s celebrity culture.

We all have to “brand” ourselves, like designer clothes, to stand out in a hyper-competitive media market. We have to tweet so that we can show we have thousands of avid disciples. We have to get in front of the video cameras as often as possible so our brand is more easily recognized. We have to write constantly on blogs or else people might think we’ve disappeared, like a star who hasn’t had a recent hit movie.

But before all that, David Broder was one of the most recognized and longest-lasting brands around, spanning five decades. Was he helped by television? Sure. Did he have ambition? Of course.

But his was the journalism of probity rather than personality. What made him a brand was the solidity and power of his reporting. You recognized the value of what he said and wrote because he had done the shoe-leather fieldwork necessary to back it up. “His answers and insights grew out of dogged reporting,” noted Balz.

You listened to and read Broder precisely because he had spent the time, in his sensible shoes, knocking on doors in neighborhoods in Iowa and New Hampshire to talk to voters, to interview grass-roots activists, to spend long campaign days with the candidates, seeing them at their best and worst. His was the voice of authority, the most influential voice of all.

“He went into living rooms, engaged people in conversations; he learned their hopes and fears,” Balz said. “Most of all, he respected their opinions.” For Broder, Balz recalled, “Elections belonged to the voters, not the politicians, or the strategists, or the reporters.”

And he did his work with uncommon decency and civility to all he encountered. “In an era of big-foot journalism, he always walked lightly,” said Balz. That’s precisely why his imprint on American journalism is so indelible. His footsteps should be our guideposts.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.