One possible target was Newsweek magazine, which I’d at least thumbed through regularly since childhood (and which was then owned by The Washington Post). I’d always read the “My Turn” columns, because most had very strong, clearly articulated themes, and I liked the way the writers expressed their opinions, especially the humorous ones. I rewrote my classroom essay in a more conversational style and mailed it to Newsweek on a Friday afternoon. The following Tuesday, someone from Newsweek called and said they wanted to use my essay. A week later, I was being interviewed on radio stations across the country. Soon there were summer internship offers from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. Even the dean of Yale’s Business School wrote to say that he thought I had the type of mind they were looking for and that I should consider applying one day.
Then came a letter from one Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, who died yesterday, asking me to accept a Washington Post internship during the summer of 1983.
I don’t mention these things to brag about how incredibly talented I was in my youth. Actually what I thought, reading Bradlee’s letter, was, “Here he goes again,” taking a chance on another unknown and potentially risky young black female employee. Just the previous year, he’d been dazzled (well, really bamboozled) by Janet Cooke, whose creative skill, embellished personal history and fraudulent storytelling ended in one of the most embarrassing chapters in the Post’s distinguished history. Obviously I wasn’t lying about anything, nor was I a sophisticated, ambitious operator like Cooke was. I was just a meek, introverted young woman (intimidated and anxious under the spotlight that essay had shined on me) who’d heeded her mother’s advice and used her brain to try to escape poverty and early pregnancy. But the willingness of so many people to take a chance both surprised me and made me think, for the first time, that maybe I did belong in journalism.
I wound up accepting the New York Times internship in 1983 instead of going to The Post. I can remember the fear as I wrote an apology letter to Ben Bradlee, trying to explain my path and thanking him for his generous offer. He wrote back. And he said, “That’s okay. We’ll get you next time.”
There is a magic that is potent beyond human understanding when someone in a position of power extends himself or herself on your behalf, based on nothing more than a belief in your potential.
Well, the New York Times internship was less than stellar, because interns were still considered glorified copy boys and girls. We couldn’t have bylines even if they had accepted our story ideas. By the end of the summer of 1983, I was so uninspired by journalism that I parked in an upstairs bedroom at my parents’ house in Cairo, Ill., and vowed not to emerge until I had produced the next Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. One day, my mother shouted up the steps that there was a phone call for me from Washington. When I answered, the voice on the other end growled, “So, you tried the New York Times. Now you need to come work for us next year.”
What was this guy’s DEAL??? I mean, didn’t Bradlee have enough to worry about at The Post without chasing down a black female two-time college dropout who wasn’t really sure she wanted to be a journalist in the first place? I had never even reapplied for the Post.
But Bradlee wanted me to come to The Post because he was a powerful, privileged white male superhero of American journalism, and he could do whatever he damn well wanted to do — including tracking me down me at my home and refusing to take no for an answer. Even though I was flattered, I was also baffled by his presumption. But he didn’t care what people thought about him, and he definitely wasn’t going to let the New York Times beat him at anything if he could help it.
And here he was asking me to accept an internship at The Post. Again! I can’t remember what I stammered in reply, but he got his way. He probably always got his way. And thank goodness.
I first entered The Post newsroom in June 1984 as a scared-out-of-my-mind intern. Sharing an elevator with Katharine Graham one morning almost gave me a stroke. When Donald Graham leaned over my desk to ask how things were going, I’m pretty sure I just stared at him like a startled calf. Lunchtime Brown Bag sessions with Bob Woodward feel like a dream. … I still can’t believe that summer happened to me.
The intern Class of 1984 contained stellar prospects such as Pulitzer Prize winners Dana Priest and Sari Horwitz; future Hollywood hotshot Paul Attanasio, who executive-produced “House, M.D.”; and future multimedia design consultant extraordinaire Ron Reason, who became one of my closest friends.
The moment I knew I would commit to journalism occurred in Ben Bradlee’s office that summer. There I sat, hands folded in my lap to keep them from trembling. On a shelf above his right shoulder sat a picture of John F. Kennedy. I was in the office of a legend who had been friends with a legend, and he was advising me on my journalism career. He said I probably wouldn’t be ready for a job at The Post when the internship ended, but he promised to connect me with some of his contacts at the newspaper in Fredricksburg, Va., where he thought I should work for a few years to build my skills.
There is a magic that is potent beyond human understanding when someone in a position of power extends himself or herself on your behalf, based on nothing more than a belief in your potential. It lights a fire that would take a hurricane to extinguish. I’ve faced a few tropical depressions through the years, mind you, but I have never stopped believing in my talent as a writer. Truthfully, it was another moment of astonishing presumption — the idea that he could direct the course of my career just because he was a master of the universe accustomed to having people take his suggestions. But he was right, and by taking the time to act as my personal career counselor, Ben Bradlee sealed my fate. I’m grateful for it every day.
News of his passing hits me hard, especially after reading about writer Rebecca Carroll, whose recent New Republic essay (“I’m a Black Journalist. I’m Quitting Because I’m Tired of Newsroom Racism”) gave me some PTSD flashbacks. It reminded me why I have never been able to watch a full episode of the HBO series “The Newsroom,” because it feels like I’m watching a parallel universe where people like me simply do not exist and wouldn’t be welcome even if they did. But, most importantly, as far as I know, it doesn’t contain a single character who is like what I remember about Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower and who was a legend before most of the people in American newsrooms today were even born and who every now and then went out of his way to think, We have GOT to make an effort to include voices besides our own in this goddamned newspaper.
So as I spend my days in a foreign news bureau editing Voice of America scripts from young South Sudanese journalists whose first language isn’t English but who risk their lives every second to report the news during their country’s latest civil war, I’ll remember how Ben Bradlee defined white privilege — and what a difference it made in my life. I believe that he knew what a fantastic hand life had dealt him by being born white, male, rich and charming, and that he saw the value of learning from people who weren’t as privileged. And I will keep praying that one day, American newsrooms will finally reflect the world as it really is.
This piece is adapted from Rachel Jones’s post on LinkedIn.