Ed Got the Get
I had the opportunity to watch Bradley in action twice — once toward the start of his Sixty Minutes career, and once near the end. In 1984 he had a riveting interview with seventeen-year-old Richard Jahnke, who'd killed his IRS agent father with a shotgun in the driveway of their Cheyenne home. Jahnke gave an emotional account of the years of abuse that had driven him to the deed; Bradley proceeded to make the social worker sweat who'd failed to fully investigate Richard's claims. Aired right after the Super Bowl, the episode was one of the highest-rated Sixty Minutes programs of all time.
I interviewed Bradley about the encounter for my book on the Jahnke case, The Poison Tree. Gracious and never self-aggrandizing, he acknowledged that the toughest part of it was keeping quiet, letting Jahnke unleash his rage and anguish. The piece remained one of his personal favorites out of hundreds of sit-downs with heads of state, mega-celebs and even a deathhouse chat with Timothy McVeigh.
Our paths crossed again six years ago, when one of Bradley's producers, David Gelber, enlisted my help as consultant and reporter for a one-hour documentary about the Columbine massacre. It was a monstrous six-month effort to knock down official stonewalling and find the truth in a community that had become rightfully wary of media blitzkriegs.
At first Bradley wasn't convinced that there was a story to be found; once the producers brought him evidence of a cover-up, though, there was no one more determined to expose it. Nobody from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office had the balls to face him on camera; the school district finally did serve up a spokeswoman, and Ed got his get. A full account of the making of that program can be found here.
At the same time, he was intensely fair-minded about it all. I remember sitting in his office as he excised a couple of lines from the script that he thought implied we had more than we did. No innuendo. Just facts.
The Columbine story didn't win an Emmy or a Peabody, like some of Bradley's other one-hour specials. It did shake loose a search-warrant affidavit for gunman Eric Harris's home that the cops had been sitting on for two years, vindicating what victims' parents had been saying about a cover-up, and it set into motion further investigations that revealed even more dismal Columbine secrets; see our story, "Anatomy of a Cover-Up," from the issue of September 30, 2004.
The show was also a ratings triumph, but ratings and awards weren't what Bradley and his crew were all about. Yes, he did his share of celebrity shmooze sessions, but he also went to report on AIDS in Africa, a topic that network execs dreaded. The report won a Peabody and helped shame pharmaceutical companies into lowering their prices for HIV drugs in developing countries.
To shame the powerful into doing the right thing may not be a textbook definition of journalism, particularly these days. But it was something Ed Bradley did well, and often. He will be missed. —Alan Prendergast