Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Thanks to the Rea Hederman, executive editor and son of the publisher of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and his friendship with University of Virginia MBA program classmate Donnie Graham -- who succeeded his mother, Kathryn, as publisher of the Washington Post -- I got to meet American journalism legend Ben Bradlee in 1979.

At the time I was the Clarion-Ledger's metro editor and as a training exercise Rea arranged for me to spend a week observing city desk operations at the Post where -- along with then City Editor Herb Denton and then Metro Editor Bob Woodward -- I also got to meet Bradlee and sit in on the Post's daily budget meetings conducted by Bradlee.

He was tough, gruff and unrelentingly demanding and left me in total awe. It impressed me that he ran those meetings like a grill master, grilling each desk editor over the value of every Page 1 offering.

During one of the meetings when a local story was being offered for Page 1 consideration by Denton, Bradlee turned a steely eye to me and demanded, "What do you think?"

After carefully avoiding wetting myself and stammering a bit as I collected my thoughts, I told him what I thought about the story and why I felt it should go on Page 1. When I was finished, Bradlee turned his gaze to Denton, who was sitting next to me and said: "That's either a great coaching job, Herb, or you're one hell of a ventriloquist."

The story, the topic of which for the life of me I can't remember, went up front.

I ran into Bradlee again five years later at a media bash sponsored in part by Kathryn Graham at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. At the time I was assistant managing editor for news and projects at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was overseeing the paper's coverage of the convention.

I had just finished thanking Mrs. Graham for the invitation and turned around and found myself face to face with Bradlee and was astonished to find that he remembered me.

He gave me a stern stare and gruffly said, "Well, Mr. Fagan, I see you're now assistant managing editor in Fort Worth. Guess you think that makes you pretty hot stuff, don't you?"

Then he broke into a warm smile, extended his hand and said, "Congratulations." He chatted with me for a few more minutes about my career since my visit to the Post and then moved on to greet Ralph Langer, editor of the Dallas Morning News.

In my 45 years in newspapering, I don't know that I ever felt more honored.

I think that beyond any doubt Ben Bradlee was the greatest newspaper editor of the last third of the 20th Century. American journalism has lost a true treasure.