Many Armenians have played significant roles throughout the world during the last 3,000 years. However, the one American Armenian who changed the course of U.S. History was Ben Bagdikian. Mr. B, as he was sometimes affectionately called, worked his way up in the newspaper business until he secured the position of national editor at the Washington Post during the early 1970s.
Ben-Hur Haig Bagdikian was born Jan. 30, 1920, in a town then known as Marash in present-day Turkey. His Armenian family soon fled the country to avoid persecution. During the escape, Mr. Bagdikian, then an infant, was dropped in the snow. He was feared dead until he began to cry.
After many months of seeking asylum, his family finally opted for the USA where they finally settled in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where his father became a Protestant pastor.
After graduating from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., in 1941, Mr. Bagdikian began his newspaper career in nearby Springfield, Mass. I must note here that I was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts and visited Clark University (a twenty minute walk away) many times as a youth.
Ben Bagdikian served as an Army Air Force officer during World War II, then worked briefly in New York before joining the Providence Journal in 1947 where he was part of a team who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for coverage of a bank robbery. Ben also served as a Washington reporter and foreign correspondent. In the 1960s, he was a Washington-based correspondent for the weekly Saturday Evening Post and published his first book, about poverty in America, in 1964.
Ben did not take the path most traveled; rather, he chose a path less worn and much more dangerous. For example, Bagdikian’s courageous actions exposed a president of the United States (and his surrounding aides who committed crimes for him) as complicit in many crimes here and abroad. Google “Crimes of the Nixon administration” for more details.
In June 1971, Mr. Bagdikian, who held the title of assistant managing editor, received a phone call asking him to travel to Boston for a clandestine meeting. The call was mysterious because it came days after the New York Times had published excerpts from the Pentagon Papers revealing a secret history of U.S. involvement in Cambodia. Cambodia is a country on the Indochinese mainland of Southeast Asia and is largely a land of plains and great rivers that lie amid important overland and river trade routes linking China to India and Southeast Asia. Soon after the NYT published details from the Pentagon Papers revealing illegal USA involvement, a federal judge ordered the Times to stop publishing the papers for reasons of national security.
The Times had received a small portion of the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, a onetime defense analyst Mr. Bagdikian had met several years before in California. Ellsberg became one of the most famous whistleblowers in USA history for his moralistic courage in exposing USA illegal activities abroad.
Mr. Bagdikian, who was told to bring an empty suitcase with him, learned that Ellsberg would meet him in Boston and turn over additional documents from the Pentagon Papers.
The suitcase was not big enough, so Mr. Bagdikian filled cardboard boxes with the pages Ellsberg handed over. He nervously flew back to Washington with the papers sitting on the seat next to him.
Bradlee (editor of the Washington Post) recalled in a speech several years later the moment when “silver-haired Ben Bagdikian, his shoulders bending under the burden of two heavy cartons, staggered up the stairs of my house . . . and dropped the Pentagon Papers on my living room floor.”
Mr. Bagdikian was among the editors and reporters who reviewed more than 4,000 jumbled pages, as members of the The Post’s news and legal staffs weighed the consequences of publishing the papers.
Mr. Bagdikian was one of the strongest voices in favor of publication, arguing that the government could not use the cloak of “national security” to limit what newspapers could print. He uttered a line that neatly summed up the principle involved: ‘The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.”
“Bradlee had never admired Bagdikian more,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 book about the media, The Powers That Be.
After The Post published the papers, Bradlee received a telephone call from a Justice Department official — future Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist — threatening to prosecute the paper for espionage unless it agreed not to print any more of the Pentagon Papers.
“We must respectfully decline,” Bradlee said.
The Post joined the New York Times in a legal battle that, because of its national importance, reached the U.S. Supreme Court within days. The court ruled, 6 to 3, that the government could not impose “prior restraint” on the newspapers to block publication of the Pentagon Papers. It is considered one of the most significant decisions supporting the First Amendment right to freedom of the press. When the Pentagon Papers were published by the Post, it resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision concerning freedom of the press. In short, the Supreme Court ruled against President Nixon’s attempts to stop the Washington Post and the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Several months after the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Bagdikian led a Post investigation of conditions in U.S. prisons. For one harrowing first-person story, he went under cover purporting to be a murderer in order to observe prison life from the inside.
He originally planned to enter a prison in Oklahoma until an ex-convict warned him, “You’ll never get out alive.” Instead, Mr. Bagdikian approached the attorney general of Pennsylvania, who agreed to allow him to enter Huntingdon State Correctional Institution without the knowledge of anyone else at the prison. He was Prisoner No. 50061.
“I was in a maximum security penitentiary for murder,” Mr. Bagdikian wrote in The Post on Jan. 31, 1972. “But I hadn’t killed anyone. No one at the prison — warden, guards, inmates — knew that. All they knew was that one night, two state policemen delivered me in handcuffs as a ‘transfer’ from a distant county jail.”
Mr. Bagdikian spent six days in the prison. He was removed after one inmate began to suspect something unusual about him and pointedly asked, “You here for your health?”
In his story, Mr. Bagdikian described widespread racial tension behind bars, outbursts of violence, open “homosexualism” and an elaborate, yet fragile, code of etiquette.
“You enjoy the trust of others but at the same time fear it,” he wrote. “Everyone is trapped together and each man has the power to harm the others.”
He and Post reporter Leon Dash published their eight-part series as a book, which Mr. Bagdikian later expanded into another book, “Caged: Eight Prisoners and Their Keepers” (1976).
After his undercover experience, Mr. Bagdikian was approached by Bradlee. “I’ve got to hand it to you, buddy,” Bradlee said. “You’ve really got big ones.”
As he aged, Mr. B became an influential educator, author, and media critic warning the public of the dangers of concentrated ownership of news organizations (think FOX News).
Mr. Bagdikian died on March 11, 2016; he was 96 years old.