Washington Post Ombudsman
Sunday, July 22, 2001
The tributes to Katharine Graham, who died Tuesday at the age of 84, have filled this paper with personal recollections of the strength, charm, courage and compassion of this remarkable woman. Yet her contribution to journalism came also because her presence, and what she stood for, could be felt at a distance by a larger work force that didn't have those closer, memorable encounters, and by people a world away.
Newspapers work best when there is a sense of drive, spirit and support, a culture that is aggressive yet accurate, fair and confident of what is put in front of readers. Mrs. Graham, in combination with a new editor, Ben Brad- lee, whom she brought from Newsweek in 1965, made that possible. Together, they motivated and made shine a generation of journalists. I think we all felt that this was what we had signed up for, what it was all supposed to be about. And it was.
In the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, and during the Watergate story from 1972 to '74, The Post and its people understood they had a gutsy owner willing to put her company on the line and an unforgettable editor. And I think it's fair to say that -- -aside from the basic instincts that brought us into journalism -- all of us wanted to perform for them, to break stories for them, to dig things out of every beat we covered.
The journalists they honed produced important work. Some went on to run other things, and others are running The Post today. So Mrs. Graham's legacy has left the paper in good hands. But it is also fair to say that Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee combined to preside over a very special, zesty time, producing a shared sense of excitement and mission that has had lasting effects on those touched by it close up or from afar.
Although editors here pressed for expanding the paper's reach abroad, it was Mrs. Graham who turned out to be the natural, a woman drawn to the world and who drew the world to her and her newspaper. She became the closest thing to American royalty abroad. Traveling with the late editorial page editor Meg Greenfield and with foreign news chief Jim Hoagland she interviewed widely -- leaders as well as critics and dissidents -- bringing Post correspondents along to meet people who are hard to get to. She put up the money for what are now 21 overseas bureaus, making The Post far more than just a good metropolitan daily.
The paper's reach and what it stood for abroad came across to me personally in the late 1970s, when, as a correspondent, I traveled through then-Communist Eastern Europe and interviewed dozens of political dissidents. In different ways, many expressed fascination with The Post and said its role in Watergate, especially, had helped restore their faith in American democracy and a free press after Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.
Mrs. Graham is also responsible for this column, having approved in 1970 the ombudsman's position as another way to hold the paper accountable to its readers and standards.
Ironically, even her passing has given something timely to journalism: a reminder about the connection between great publishers and great journalism. This comes as many journalistic enterprises are under pressure to maintain very high profit margins, even in a tough business climate, and when other news enterprises are being absorbed by conglomerates whose main business is not journalism.
I have often thought about Watergate and the Pentagon Papers and wondered what the stature, and the stock price, of The Washington Post and the New York Times, which led on the Pentagon Papers, would be today if those papers and their committed publishers had not resisted the pressures at the time. Both papers have thrived, so the lesson ought to be that good journalism is good business. But you have to wonder how many news organizations would make those decisions these days.