The Illinois Prize
for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism
2008 Honoree: Benjamin C.Bradlee
The University of Illinois’ Department of Journalism in the College of Media presented the Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism to Benjamin C. Bradlee of The Washington Post, on October 24, 2008, at a ceremony and dinner held at The Newseum, in Washington, D.C.
A friend of Ben Bradlee’s once said to him, “You’ve had a good life.”
What an understatement!
Benjamin C. Bradlee, as executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 through 1991, redefined what an American newspaper could be: tough, compassionate, intelligent, fearless and creative. His newspaper’s qualities were Ben’s qualities. During his tenure, The Post won 18 Pulitzer Prizes. On his watch, The Post challenged the federal government for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, precipitated the resignation of a United States president and created the revolutionary Style section. His contributions reinvigorated the American newspaper and reminded the nation that fine journalism must always be at the root of a vibrant democracy.
Always the maverick, Ben had courage forged by a childhood struggle with polio and his combat experiences during World War II. Upon returning home from the war, he worked at the New Hampshire Sunday News before joining The Post in 1948 as a reporter covering the federal courts. In 1951, a restless Ben Bradlee became press attaché at the United States Embassy in Paris. After a two-year stint, he joined Newsweek’s Paris bureau, where he covered the Anglo-French invasion of Suez and the Algerian rebellion, Geneva Conferences and North Africa. Returning to Washington in 1957, Ben quickly climbed the ranks to become Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief.
In 1965, he rejoined The Post as managing editor. Just three years later, he was named executive editor. Soon, Ben would coach two young reporters—forever linked as “Woodward and Bernstein”—as their reporting exposed the sordid story behind “a third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel complex. Ben Bradlee, who with his publisher Katharine Graham stood up to the threat of government retaliation, remained faithful to the clearest of all journalism values—dig up the truth and tell it.
In 1991, Ben retired as executive editor of The Post, leaving an indelible imprint on the paper he brought to international prominence and the journalism profession he helped transform. He went on to turn the tale of his remarkable life into a best-selling memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. He remains The Post’s vice president-at-large and continues to give back to the journalism profession through teaching and commentary and to his community by tireless service to local institutions.
A good life? Yes, but also a great life—a life of bravery, integrity and excellence.
A life for the ages.
VIDEO: Illinois Prize 2008 - Ben Bradlee
Comments from Friends and Colleagues
“His legacy is one word: Excellence. He is a living, breathing example of someone who understood from the very beginning, and still understands, what journalism’s purpose is: To inform the public, so the public can then decide how to act on the information. He brought the best example of how to practice journalism to people’s front porch every day.”
—Jim Lehrer, journalist and the news anchor for PBS Newshour on PBS
“He’s one of the more important figures in journalism. Certainly, he’s one of the most important in the latter half of the century. His legacy is an independent, feisty newspaper, journalism that serves the truth and fairness, and not special interest.”
—Richard Cohen, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post
“Ben Bradlee is to American journalism what Michael Jordan is to basketball, what Toni Morrison is to popular literature, Warren Buffet to finance— simply the best of our times. All those he’s touched are better off—except those he has exposed.”
—Al Hunt, executive Washington editor for Bloomberg News
“He’s probably the best editor of the 20th century. I think he pulled together an amazing group of journalists and turned them free. He had a great instinct for news, and he was willing to take chances at a time when journalists really needed to, given the way the government was going. It’s sort of an old slogan, but he turned The Post into a reporter’s paper.”
—Walter Pincus, national security journalist for The Washington Post
“In my view, Ben is the preeminent newspaper editor of his generation and perhaps of the last half of the 20th century. Brains, courage, infectious enthusiasm and loyalty—those are traits that have not only endeared him to me, but also, in my view, vaulted him to the top of his profession.”
—Jim Wooten, senior correspondent, ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline, Good Morning America and other ABCNEWS broadcasts.
“Ben Bradlee is a living legend for his courageous and brilliant work in guiding Woodward and Bernstein through their investigative reporting on Watergate. Together, they transformed American journalism, especially the culture and techniques of the Washington press corps. His legacy? He set the standard by which all investigative journalism will be measured.”
—Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, 1982-2004
“Ben is not only a great editor but a great human leader. He always had a sense of what The Washington Post could be and should be, and had unerring taste, supreme ethics and leadership skills, hiring legendary reporters and helping them reach their full potential.”
—Michael Beschloss, American presidency historian and author