When Ben Bradlee died on Tuesday, Bob Woodward was quoted as saying that “His passing, in a way, marks the end of the 20th century,” a phrase that cuts in more directions than Bradlee’s superstar protege likely intended. Or as Andrew Ferguson writes in response at the Weekly Standard, “About time:”
Bradlee was complaining that a lot of the fun had gone out of journalism during the Reagan years. The reason, he said, was that “there are so many of these asshole watchdog groups now.”
He was referring in particular to Accuracy in Media, or AIM, a conservative practitioner of the kind of ideological press criticism that is now a common feature of the media world, so greatly enlarged by cable TV and the Internet. These parvenus were crowding his territory, barbarians trying to breach the gates. He and his friends were the watchdogs, goddammit, and the watchdog didn’t need any watchdogs watching it.
But the new order allowed the watchdogs and other buttinskis an audience as large as his own paper’s. It made Bradlee churlish. AIM was founded by an earnest man named Reed Irvine, a sweet, slightly buffoonish drudge whose suit always seemed a size and a half too large and whose pinched appearance made him easily mocked, especially by men whose own suits were bespoke. Irvine’s great mission in life was to expose the pretenses to fairness and disinterestedness of a monolithic press—to “tell it like it was,” to borrow a phrase from the Post’s piece. He was a genuine subversive, nipping at the heels of an establishment that in its vanity considered itself “antiestablishment.”
Publicly, Bradlee called Irvine a “retromingent.” The word describes a kind of animal, one that urinates backward. The insult was funny and revealing in its casual cruelty.
These days their battle—asymmetric as it was—seems so long ago, a dispute from a vanished era. The tributes to Bradlee from his protégés had the same quality, voices assuming the authority of an order that is passing, that has passed away. Now that both men are dead, I hope it’s some consolation to the shade of Reed Irvine to know that, in the effort to dismantle and discredit a corrupt regime, he won and Bradlee lost.
Which is another reminder that neither side of the aisle wanted the smugly self-satisfied MSM to have the final word on the issues, when the World Wide Web began to gather speed in the mid-to-late 1990s.