Winner: Steve Weissman, for an even pithier summary of why our involvement in Afghanistan is doomed to failure.
Winner: Philip Bennett, who resigned at the end of last year as managing editor of The Washington Post after winning the hearts and minds of most of those who worked for him. Journalists often reserve their most evocative words for beloved colleagues. Here is how Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid remembered Bennett, in a tribute that was read aloud at the editor’s farewell gathering:
I first met Phil in November 2002. I’ll remember that date because it’s when I became a journalist. I had written plenty of stories. You do that spending 10 years as a reporter at the Associated Press. But only at that lunch with Phil did I understand what we can do as journalists. For an hour, I sat there, wide-eyed, shaking my head, as he seemed to reach inside my mind and pull out every ambition, hope and frustration I ever had. For the first time in my career, maybe my life, I was inspired.
“You’ve done everything you can do where you’ve been,” he told me as he asked for the check. “Now it’s time to become something more.”
I joined the Post because of its editors, and in Phil, I got the best there is.
In Baghdad, a few days into the invasion, he noticed the texture of the street conversations at the bottom of the story. To me, it was throwaway color. To him, it might be the essence of the invasion. In a story that was burdened by clichés, here was ambiguity and ambivalence. That might be your theme, he told me.
On one story, a long sketch about a family burying a young boy, he did something that no editor had done before and none has since. He cut the nut graf. He just cut it. There was a lyricism to the gesture, a move that was subtle and grand.
And as Rajiv and I tried to make sense of the chaos around us, we turned time and again to Phil. Let the reporting tell the story, he said to us. Lose our preconceptions. Get rid of the ideas we brought. Understand the story. That was our job. Phil never told me what he thought. He never insisted what the story should be. He never suggested there was an answer out there. Report the story, and in the end, we’ll have done right by ourselves and by the people and conflicts we cover.
He never flinched, not once, in letting us do that.
In writing this, I’m overwhelmed by how many lessons I’ve learned the past six years. I feel like everything I believe as a journalist has come from Phil. Through him, I learned to speak truth to power. I learned to fear assumptions and the chauvinism and bias they bring. I learned to embrace the gray in stories that are always too black and white. Perhaps most important, I learned to be quiet. It was another lunch, a few months into the war, and Phil scolded me for stories that had too much drama. There was too much shouting, too much gunfire. They were too loud, he said, and I realized then that quiet journalism is often the best.
When that year ended, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the attention. I felt undeserving, a little unworthy. Phil took me to the side. He seemed to sense what was on my mind. It’s not about you, I remember him telling me, it’s about your work, and the work can stand on its own. On that day, he had become a friend.
The work that I and other foreign correspondents do is going extinct. Sitting in southern Iraq tonight, trying to make sense of another story, I realize that. The same could probably be said about American journalism, at least as we’ve understood it. And at perhaps its most critical time – when we have to rethink it and reimagine it – we have to face the fact that we’ve lost its most courageous, brilliant voice. Journalism feels a little untethered to me, and the Post feels a lonelier place.
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