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At Ben Bradlee's Funeral, Mourners Mark More Than His Life


Here in Washington today, hundreds of mourners gathered in the National Cathedral to mark the life and death of Ben Bradlee the charismatic editor who led The Washington Post for more than a quarter century. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik was there.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: On the day Ben Bradlee died, a former senior editor at The Washington Post sadly told me the world feels diminished. Today, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post's Watergate reporting tandem Woodstein used the same word.


BOB WOODWARD: Ben's passing is in some respects and in some very clear ways marks the end of the 20th century. He is gone, and for that we are diminished and the world is smaller.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet, Bradlee's life was marked by accomplishment, by his gut instinct, by his guts and his gusto. Bradlee died this month at the age of 93 and that death, while deeply affecting for his family and vast networks of friends and colleagues, should not feel out of joint. Yet, while there are many jokes about Bradlee's fondness for profanity, the tone of today's memorial service was notably subdued. Woodward's old partner Carl Bernstein said the media falls prey to fear these days.


CARL BERNSTEIN: The dominant political and media culture is too often geared to the lowest common denominator - make noise, get eyeballs, cover the political battles like a football game.

FOLKENFLIK: Not Bradlee's style, Bernstein said.


BERNSTEIN: There was no safe line except the truth - no groupthink. What was said? What happened? Why? What is the context? No sensationalism - keep digging.

FOLKENFLIK: The rows of the cathedral were filled by some of the most powerful figures in politics and journalism. Former Washington Post Chairman Donald Graham reminded those present how much Bradlee liked puncturing the pompous and the preening.


DONALD GRAHAM: This is a very large building, but everyone in it knows people whose enormous reputations are undeserved.


GRAHAM: We knew somebody much better than his very large reputation - even braver, even smarter, much more fun.

FOLKENFLIK: Last year, Graham agreed to sell the paper his family had controlled for eight decades to Amazon's Jeff Bezos who was also present. Today, many journalists at the service expressed to me a shared lament for the loss the role that newspapers once played and that The Washington Post exemplified, an indispensable force for holding the powerful accountable.

As I looked up at the ceiling of the cathedral, I saw an edifice still under repair from a freak earthquake a few years back. In the age of BuzzFeed and ProPublica and Reddit and God knows what's next, the edifice of newspapering itself seems shaky and unlikely to regain its full footing, but Bradlee himself was always a bullion. And the service ended on this John Phillip Sousa standard, "The Washington Post March."


FOLKENFLIK: David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.