10/24/2014 09:24 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Waltzing With Ben and Sally

The Washington Post via Getty Images

For three years, I sat next to Sally Quinn and fought with Ben Bradlee. That's a quick summary of my brief and fiery career at the Washington Post. I was just 27 years old in 1973 when Bradlee hired me to write in the Style section of the newspaper. I had caught the paper's attention with a series of profiles I had written for the New York Post, then owned by Dorothy Schiff, and I was flown down to Washington for interviews. Bradlee was the last and toughest. He snarled, threw around F words and popped a trick question. "We've been accused of racism," he said, referring to the Metro Seven suit filed by the paper's black reporters a year earlier. I was Haitian-born and black. "How do you feel about working for a racist paper?" "If I was going to worry about who was racist, I wouldn't be in this business," I answered. He roared with laughter and I was aboard.

I was excited to work at the Post during Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were making new revelations every day. Style was an innovative section which gave writers lots of space to tell a story. The paper was in a state of siege with the government. John Mitchell was sending warnings to Katharine Graham that she would get "her titty caught in a wringer." The hostility from the White House was palpable. When I made a routine call for a list of guests at a White House dinner, the operator hung up on me. Much later, I realized I had shared in one of the bravest moments in American journalism, long before the industry lapsed into caution and a lack of skepticism about government.

I was assigned to profile figures that emerged from Woodstein's investigations. I chased Egil Krogh, a Nixon operative, and a dozen others. Most of them declined. But after President Nixon fired his attorney general and Robert Bork agreed to take over, I was dispatched to Bork's home with a photographer. I told him it was his chance to tell his side of what was being called the Saturday Night Massacre. To my surprise, he let us in and explained for an hour that he had accepted the job because didn't want the government to fall into chaos. He let us take a picture of him sipping a Scotch, which he would reprimand me for decades later. The story was on the front page of Style the next day with a front-page teaser. I ran into Bradlee on the elevator. There was no congratulations -- instead: "What are you going to do next?" he asked.

Bradlee was undoubtedly the best newsroom leader I ever worked for. He pushed you to be better, spotted the weak spots in your draft and had a nose for news. When I sent him a short wire story about two teenage black girls in Alabama who had been sterilized, I was on the next plane to Montgomery. I covered Duke Ellington's New York funeral -- after coming in at 4 a.m. to write a 5,000 word obit on deadline.

I also learned it was not smart to get on his bad side. After a year at The Post, I began to understand why the black reporters had sued. The Post, with seven or eight African-American journalists, probably had more than any other major newspaper at the time. But the paper's coverage of black Washington was as bad as its national coverage was good. When the District of Columbia won the right to elect its mayor, the story in the paper included interviews with addicts and winos on one of the city's worst blocks expressing indifference. I wrote a memo pointing out that the District had one of the largest middle classes in America and that when a bill was passed that affected white people, we should get the opinions of white inmates in federal prisons.

My apartment in Adams-Morgan became a meeting place for the paper's black reporters. I argued that we needed to back up our demands with facts and statistics. Some of the numbers shocked us. The usual upward path at The Post was to go from Metro to the national desk. Yet, in a period of eight years, not a single black reporter had been promoted. That prompted a memo. We analyzed the coverage of middle class blacks in the Metro pages. Memo. I was soon identified as a ringleader. When tensions became unbearable, I applied for an opening in Los Angeles. Bradlee wrote me a letter rejecting my application because I was "gifted but a pain in the ass, and no one wants a pain in the ass." I showed the letter to some colleagues seeking advice on how to respond. It was soon public and in Alex Cockburn's media column.

I decided to resign and moved to California anyway but learned that confronting Bradlee had a cost. I was turned down for several newspaper jobs. I switched to magazines and soon re-launched my career. I would go on to work a decade at Fortune and manage several major technology magazines. Years later, I ran into Bradlee at a social event. He shook my hand warmly and said, "We learned a lot from you." I realized that by standing my ground, I had earned his respect.

In 2009, I was approached about running The Root, a website founded by Washington Post publisher Don Graham and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I warned Gates I had left The Post decades earlier in something of a huff. The word came back from Washington: "Welcome back."

Joel Dreyfuss is living in Paris and writing a book about the 300-year history of his family in Haiti.