In an era when news of complex and important issues is all too often reported in 15-second television news stories and articles offering little nuance and even less analysis, the work of serious journalists - both their formidable triumphs like Watergate and their distressing disasters - reinforce for us all why the First Amendment so forcefully spells out our rights of free speech and a free press.
At the core of the First Amendment is the belief that discussion, debate and dissection of public affairs should be - in the words of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan - "uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."
With that in mind, Brennan in the landmark First Amendment case of the New York Times vs. Sullivan wrote that it was as important for citizens to critically examine their government "as it is the official's duty to administer."
As a result of all that debate and all the information available in a democratic society, the theory goes, good ideas will prevail over bad ones in the marketplace of ideas, and the people will benefit.
The new autobiography of Ben Bradlee, legendary editor of the Washington Post during the era when it became one of America's best newspapers, provides ample evidence that the theory works.
On one level, Mr. Bradlee's book, "A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures" (Simon and Schuster. 514 pages. $27.50), is a compelling and colorful story about the life and times of a journalist whose career converged with many of the great stories of his generation.
On another, perhaps more subtle, level, the Post's great stories - and how the newspaper pursued them, overcame obstacles to get them, decided to publish them and how they affected the nation - provide for readers of this very entertaining and illuminating autobiography important insights into the inextricable relationship between the government and the press.
Launching his career at the New Hampshire Sunday News in February 1946, Mr. Bradlee got his training as a reporter in an era when journalists generally trusted the public officials they covered. Often, in his early years as a reporter, access to the men who made the news was far more important than analytical prowess or skill at uncovering the differences between a politician's campaign promises and his performance in office.
As a young staffer at Newsweek, Mr. Bradlee helped expose corruption in the Eisenhower administration. In October 1956, he covered the Israeli invasion of Egypt.
The following year, he bought a home in Georgetown, just a few months before John F. Kennedy moved onto his block. And he covered the White House for Newsweek when Kennedy, his friend and neighbor, became president. Then, in March 1965, Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, called him for lunch at the F Street Club, where she suggested that her newspaper might benefit by an infusion of new blood. Their talk led to a job offer, and Mr. Bradlee joined the Post that summer.
Thus began a remarkable new era at the Post. Over the next 26 years, Mr. Bradlee would invigorate and inspire a newsroom that broke some of the most distinguished and some of the most controversial stories of his times.
So how does Mr. Bradlee's life story relate to all this democratic theory? Both the stories Mr. Bradlee wrote and the ones he edited at the Post permeate the 499 pages of "A Good Life," and although Mr. Bradlee is no philosopher, his work at the Post demonstrates why courageous editors who understand democratic principles are an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy.
In many ways, the Vietnam War era, when enterprising and skeptical reporters began to discern the differences between official U. S. reports and battlefield facts, was a watershed in the relationship of the press and the government. For the Washington Post and Ben Bradlee, who in June 1971 was completing his sixth year as executive editor, Vietnam was an equally important turning point.
On Sunday, June 13, the New York Times began publishing stories based on a secret, 7,000-page study of the Vietnam War, commissioned by the government; by Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department obtained a court order prohibiting the Times from any further publication of stories based on the study, known as "The Pentagon Papers."
The next day, the Post's national editor Ben Bagdikian had 4,000 pages of the study in hand, and the Post's editors began preparing a story for the Thursday paper. As Mr. Bradlee writes, "With The Times silenced by the Federal Court in New York, we decided almost immediately we would publish a story the next morning. . . ." Of course, Mr. Bradlee's decision was not final: Attorneys for the newspaper, business executives and, most importantly, Publisher Graham would all have to be consulted.
When it came time for a decision, Ms. Graham - despite the reservations of corporate attorneys and trusted advisers - said simply: "Okay, I say let's go. Let's publish."
That, writes Mr. Bradlee, is "what newspapers do: they learn, they report, they verify, they write and they publish." As for Katharine Graham, he says, she "had shown guts and commitment to the First Amendment and support of her editors."
The Pentagon Papers provided even more fuel for the firestorm of public skepticism about Vietnam and raised new questions about the honesty of the Johnson administration. A year later, when five burglars were arrested inside Democratic National Committee headquarters, two young Post reporters - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein - aggressively went after the story, following the labyrinthine trail of campaign finances, political dirty tricks and a carefully orchestrated cover-up - to the heart of the Nixon administration.
It is Mr. Bradlee's belief that the bond of trust forged between the publisher and the newsroom in the caldron of the Pentagon Papers case paved the way for the Post's superb work on Watergate.
Mr. Bradlee's failures also teach important lessons about a newspaper's duties. In September 1980, the Post published a story on the front page of its Sunday paper, headlined "Jimmy's World." Written by a young reporter named Janet Cooke, the article purported to tell the story of Jimmy, an 8-year-old heroin addict, who was identified only by his first name.
None of Ms. Cooke's editors demanded that she identify Jimmy to them. Even when a colleague, Courtland Milloy, expressed his doubt to top editors about Jimmy's existence and Ms. Cooke failed to locate Jimmy's home for him, no one on the newspaper investigated the veracity of her report. On one level - that of assuring the accuracy and thoroughness of the Post's reporting - top editors failed to fulfill their responsibility. Perhaps the prospect of a "great" story written by a talented young black woman dulled what should have been their sharp sense of professional skepticism.
The truth of the Jimmy story began to unravel on April 13, 1981, when Ms. Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. That afternoon, Mr. Bradlee learned that Ms. Cooke had not graduated from Vassar as she claimed on her resume. The disclosure renewed and intensified the questions about the truthfulness of "Jimmy's World" and led to Ms. Cooke's admission that she had fabricated the story.
For Mr. Bradlee, the experience was devastating. To the Post's credit, the newspaper that week published a front-page story that ran four full pages inside revealing the editors' mistakes and stating unequivocally that the paper had been "humiliated."
But Ms. Cooke's story, just like Watergate, provided valuable insights for Mr. Bradlee, his staff and his readers. In their ardent pursuit of the story, their zealous effort to vindicate First Amendment principles and give citizens information of importance, the Post's key editors - up and down the line - had forgotten their humanity. Even if the editors' vaunted professional skepticism had deserted them, the disaster could have been averted entirely (as Mr. Bradlee himself points out) had just one staffer insisted that Jimmy be examined and treated by a doctor.
Had that happened and had Janet Cooke failed to produce the boy, it would have raised very serious questions about the validity of her story. That, of course, never occurred. Thus, a proud newspaper learned the hard way that in evaluating and editing its own work, it must apply the same high standards and skepticism that its reporters and editors routinely apply to examining the performance of a president.
For both journalists and citizens, the story of "Jimmy's World" was a painful and poignant reminder that our First Amendment freedoms come with responsibilities - namely that accuracy, thoroughness and fairness are essential; that reporters must remember that the people the media cover are also human beings with families and feelings that could be deeply hurt by their work; and that in almost every hotly contested controversy, there are always two sides to the story, and that those two sides should always be part of the story.
William K. Marimow, managing editor of The Sun, earned two Pulitzer Prizes as a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He studied law as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.