By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007
Ben Gilbert, 89, a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for nearly 30 years who later became a government official in Washington state and an advocate for the hard-of-hearing, died Feb. 28 at Hospice House near his home in Tacoma, Wash. He had been battling breast cancer that had migrated to his lungs.
A strong-willed city editor and later a deputy managing editor and associate editor of the editorial page, Mr. Gilbert had a reputation as a tough and exacting newsman who was extremely knowledgeable about the city and dedicated to journalism's role as an agent of change in the community. Poverty, racism and governmental corruption were of particular interest.
As a young reporter at The Post, Mr. Gilbert covered the conversion of the U.S. civilian economy to war production and attended President Franklin D. Roosevelt's twice-weekly press conferences.
As city editor years later, he pushed to expand the newspaper's coverage of race relations, and in 1968 helped direct coverage of riots in the city after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. He also edited a compilation of Post coverage, "Ten Blocks from the White House: Anatomy of the Washington Riots of 1968," written by then-reporters Leonard Downie Jr. and Jesse Lewis.
"He started building local coverage capability for the newspaper at a time when this was a very small newsroom and our coverage of local news was typical of most newspapers, crime and politics," said Downie, now executive editor of The Post. "He also was one of the first to see the importance of covering the metropolitan area, not just the District."
In the early 1950s, he launched an investigation of alleged corruption in the D.C. police department. Sustained coverage over four years helped spur a Senate investigation and a departmental shakeup.
"He was a hard man to love, but he was a hell of a newspaperman," said Benjamin C. Bradlee, managing editor of The Post during Mr. Gilbert's final five years at the paper. "He got things done."
Dorothy Gilliam, a Post reporter and columnist during Mr. Gilbert's tenure, recalled the support he gave her as the newspaper's first African American female reporter. He had recruited her when she was a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1961, as part of his effort to bring African Americans and women into the newsroom.
"I know a lot of people had running feuds with him," she said, "but he was decent to me and he went out of his way. I'm really grateful to him for helping me."
Mr. Gilbert was born Benjamin William Goldberg in New York. He graduated in social science from the City College of New York in 1937 and received a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1939. He changed his name on the advice of a professor at Missouri, who told him it would be easier to get a job if his name weren't so obviously Jewish.
He was a city hall reporter in St. Louis before joining The Post in 1941. He covered the Office of Price Administration and other wartime agencies, served briefly as an information officer with the War Labor Board and then returned to The Post, where he was named city editor shortly after the war ended.
He and Bradlee personified contrasting philosophies about a newspaper's role in the community. Mr. Gilbert believed newspapers should use their influence to push an agenda; Bradlee was determined to keep the paper apolitical.
In 1967, two years after Bradlee became managing editor, Mr. Gilbert learned that President Lyndon B. Johnson planned to appoint Walter E. Washington as the city's first mayor. He passed along the tip to Bradlee but insisted that the information not be printed because disclosing it might cause Johnson to change his mind. After a reporter confirmed the story, Bradlee ordered it published without telling his senior editor -- and then had city editor Stephen Isaacs swipe the paper's first edition off Mr. Gilbert's doorstep.
Mr. Gilbert and Bradlee continued to clash. When the 1968 riots erupted, the two men engaged in a shouting match over a photograph of three grim-looking white men holding rifles to protect their shop against black looters. Over Mr. Gilbert's objections, the picture ran on page one, though not as large as Bradlee wanted.
Mr. Gilbert left The Post in 1970 to become the on-air editor of "Newsroom," an experimental nightly news program on WETA-TV that was a forerunner to "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."
In 1972, he became director of the D.C. Municipal Planning Office under Mayor Washington and was credited with helping open up the city's planning and zoning process as planning for neighborhoods shifted from federal control to home rule.
He also lectured on journalism at American University, the City College of New York and the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies in Austria.
After moving to Tacoma in 1983, he was appointed to the Tacoma Landmarks Commission, serving for 18 years. When he retired from the commission in 2003, the Tacoma News Tribune described him as the commission's "conscience, its historian, its keeper of the record and the faith."
He shifted his attention to an organization called Self Help for Hard of Hearing People (SHHH). "You have no idea how isolated people who are hard of hearing become," he told the News Tribune. "They pull into a shell. SHHH is working to bring them out."
His wife, Maurine Coffee Gilbert, died in 1994.
Survivors include two children, Ian Gilbert of the District and Amy Mann of Tacoma; a sister; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Former staff writer Claudia Levy contributed to this report.