Young editor conquers Capital

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009 9:26 AM

He may be one of Washington's hottest young journalists, but Garrett Graff spent enough time as a campaign flack to learn the art of the politically adept reply.

Sitting in his neatly organized Washingtonian office in a sport coat and lavender tie, the preppy-looking 28-year-old is asked why the magazine he just took over doesn't run more cutting-edge reporting. He puts his finger to his lips and ponders the question, perhaps not wanting to offend his predecessor just down the hall.

"I would certainly agree that is the perception," Graff says. There is a need to "freshen up" the magazine, but "service" journalism -- "Fall Weekends," "Eat Cheap," "Inside 10 Great Homes," "26 Reasons to Love Living Here," to name some recent covers -- "is what sells on the newsstands. I think the reader can tire of that if they don't make it past the cover."

The soft-spoken Graff has eased his way up the ladder -- from presidential campaign speechwriter to media blogger, from Washingtonian freelancer to top dog -- with remarkable fluidity. And he managed to replace Jack Limpert, 75, who ran the place for four decades, without a trace of hard feelings.

"He was the brightest 23-year-old I'd ever seen in journalism when I hired him, and I think he's the brightest 28-year-old today," says Limpert, who has traded jobs with Graff. "Very smart, lots of energy, and best of all, he understands the digital world in a way some of us old-timers don't."

Catherine Merrill Williams, the publisher, says that when she took over Washingtonian, "my biggest fear was, what if Jack was hit by a bus? Garrett is just a uniquely talented individual who is Web-savvy, print-savvy and just has journalism running through his blood."

Williams also is part of the generational shift at the magazine long owned by her family. She took over in 2006 after her father, Philip Merrill, died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound while on a Chesapeake Bay sailing trip.

The question now is how much to tamper with the monthly's formula of safe, bland comfort food. While conceding that its most popular features are the restaurant reviews and front-of-the-book gossip items, Graff proclaims a passion for long-form journalism.

The October issue, his first as editor, features a richly detailed piece on a Washington couple charged with spying for Cuba. But the cover story is a puffy look at Fairfax's Thomas Jefferson High School. (Although it does have the unusually contrarian headline "Why You Should Hate This School." Answer: because it might be too good.) Washingtonian's default setting is upbeat; an August cover piece on a fire rescue in Bethesda is touted as "The Inspiring Story."

The monthly hasn't been immune to the recession, although Williams says it still makes money. Paid circulation is 137,000; Graff intends to focus equally on the Web site, which caters to younger readers and is drawing 340,000 unique monthly visitors. Five journalists have been cut from an editorial staff of 35 this year.

A relative newcomer to the Beltway, Graff grew up in the tiny Vermont capital of Montpelier. His dad ran the Associated Press's Vermont bureau; his mother was a children's book author and later editor of Vermont Life magazine; his father's stepfather had been drama critic for New York's Herald Tribune. At 14, Graff became a summer press aide for the state's Democratic governor, Howard Dean, staying on to write press releases after school and building Dean's first Web site in 1997.

Graff went to Harvard (there were also Washington internships at ABC and the Atlantic), where he devoted four years to the student paper. He and some colleagues at the Crimsonscored the scoop that the university had tapped Larry Summers as its next president; the head of the search committee refused to confirm it, dismissively telling the Boston Globe the next day, "Kids can get it wrong sometimes."

When Dean launched his presidential bid, Graff was his deputy national press secretary. He reported to Joe Trippi, the hard-charging campaign manager, who sometimes crumpled the placid aide's work and threw it back at him.

"He was incredible," Trippi recalls. "No matter how many times I told him to go back and do a speech over, he'd come back with something better." If Trippi gave Graff an issue to handle with the press, "he might blow it the first time. But there was something about him. Even when he blew it, I'd trust him again and he'd get better the next time around."

Graff, retreating behind his New England reserve, declines to say whether the press was unfair to Dean: "No matter how you answer that question, it ends up sounding like sour grapes." He says he saw both superlative work and shoddy reporting: "We dealt with some unbelievably irresponsible journalism in that campaign."

After Dean imploded, Graff moved to Washington and launched the Fishbowl DC blog for Media Bistro, showing a flair for self-promotion. During the flap over the Bush White House giving access to Jeff Gannon, whose X-rated past emerged while he worked for a Web site run by a Republican operative, Graff applied for a daily White House pass. He chronicled his efforts online, did a spate of cable shows, and the New York Times recorded the blogger's triumph when he got his credentials. "I had my 15 minutes of Web fame," Graff says.

Graff soon tried freelancing for Washingtonian. His first assignment was. . . . a profile of me. Graff was methodical, meticulous and fair, making only one error involving chronology. Other pieces followed, and Limpert hired him to edit the breezy "Capital Comment" section. Graff also found time to knock out a book about politics and technology, "The First Campaign," and is working on another about the FBI.

After Limpert decided last spring that he wanted to dial down to a lesser editing role, Graff was briefly elevated to the No. 2 post of executive editor. "Cathy wanted to try me out a little in terms of decision-making," he says. Apparently he passed the test. Media reports on his appointment focused on his age, as Graff cheerfully noted on his blog.

Gawker called him "an up and coming whippersnapper." Portfolio's headline: "And a Child Shall Edit Them." Portfolio has since folded; the child is still standing.

"I'm looking for a long-term editor," Williams says. "To me the fact that he's young is a plus."

Graff is a regular at book parties and receptions, sometimes with his girlfriend, Katherine Birrow, an assistant to Georgetown University's president. He says he enjoys the social circuit but isn't trying to make a name for himself. "For me, it's not a conscious I'm-going-to-devote-17-hours-a-week-to-networking," Graff says.

For the staff, Graff's rapid ascent, when some veterans have been let go, has been jarring. "I think he's done a pretty good job of assuring people there aren't going to be huge changes," says Washingtonian reporter Harry Jaffe. "He's taken care in sitting down with every single editor and writer. This is a pretty smooth transition because Jack Limpert is still very much in the editorial mix."

One question still lingers: Can a former Deaniac -- a self-described "liberal" on his Facebook page -- be a fair-and-balanced editor?

Graff notes that Limpert took over Washingtonian after working for Hubert Humphrey's 1968 campaign. Besides, he says, "the Merrills are a strong Republican family," with Phil Merrill having served in three GOP administrations. "The magazine has always strived, in a city of partisanship, to be incredibly nonpartisan," Graff says. "I will never depart from that legacy. Cathy wouldn't let me, and I wouldn't want to."

Does an under-30 editor have something to prove? The answer seems obvious, but Graff, again, chooses his words carefully.

"I have traditionally done pretty well proving to people I'm capable of that which I've been given, or earned, depending on how one looks at it," he says.

Analyzing Obama

In her weekly WSJ rumination, Peggy Noonan says Obama must stop blaming his predecessor:

"The great question they debated last week was whether the president is tough enough: Does he come across as too weak? It is true, as the cliché has it, that it's helpful for a president to be both revered and feared. But this president is not weak, that's not his problem. He willed himself into the presidency with an adroit reading of the lay of the land, brought together and dominated all the constituent pieces of victory, showed and shows impressive self-discipline, seems in general to stick to a course once he's chosen it, though arguably especially when he's wrong. His decision to let Congress write a health-care bill may yield at least the appearance of victory. And if Mr. Obama isn't twisting arms like LBJ, and then giving just an extra little jerk to snap the rotator cuff just for fun, the case can be made that day by day he's moving the Democrats of Congress in the historic direction he desires. All his adult life he's played the long game, which takes patience and skill.

"The problem isn't his personality, it's his policies. His problem isn't what George W. Bush left but what he himself has done. . . .

"In this atmosphere, with these dynamics, Mr. Obama's excuse-begging and defensiveness won't work. Everyone knows he was handed horror. They want him to fix it."

Targeting Fox

Even liberals who can't stand Fox News are criticizing the White House attacks. Take Joe Klein:

"Let me be precise here: Fox News peddles a fair amount of hateful crap. Some of it borders on sedition. Much of it is flat out untrue.

"But I don't understand why the White House would give such poisonous helium balloons as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity the opportunity for still greater spasms of self-inflation by declaring war on Fox.

"If the problem is that stories bloated far beyond their actual importance -- ACORN's corruption, Van Jones's radical past -- are in danger of leaching out of the Fox hothouse into the general media, then perhaps the Administration should be a bit more diligent about whom it hires and whom it funds.

"If the problem is broader -- that Fox News spreads seditious lies to its demographic sliver of an audience -- the Administration should probably be stoic: the wingnuts will always be with us. The best antidote to their garbage is elegant, intelligent governance. The next-best antidote is occasional engagement: I thought Obama came away from his O'Reilly and Chris Wallace interviews much the better for it. (Though you don't want to sit down with a thug like Hannity or a weirdo like Beck.)"

Boys' club Barack

In the NYT, Mark Leibovich throws a hard foul at the president:

"Does the White House feel like a frat house?

"The suspicion flared in recent weeks -- and not for the first time -- after President Obama was criticized by women's advocates and liberal bloggers for hosting a high-level basketball game with no female players.

"The president, after all, is an unabashed First Guy's Guy. Since being elected, he has demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of college hoops on ESPN, indulged a craving for weekend golf, expressed a preference for adopting a "big rambunctious dog" over a "girlie dog" and hoisted beer in a peacemaking effort.

"He presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call each other "dude" and testosterone-brimming personalities like Rahm Emanuel, the often-profane chief of staff; Lawrence Summers, the brash economic adviser; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who habitually speaks in sports metaphors."

Listen, dude, as a big Leibovich fan, I thought this piece was wildly overplayed on the front page. You recall any women clearing brush with George W. ? Judge Obama by people like Valerie Jarrett and Christina Romer and Sonia Sotomayor, not because he likes to play basketball with the boys. Obama called the criticism "bunk" in an interview with NBC's Savannah Guthrie.

I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the First Duffer played golf with aide Melody Barnes yesterday.

Thrown out

For nearly a week, ESPN said it had already taken disciplinary action against Steve Phillips, the baseball commentator who fooled around with a 22-year-old production assistant who then started harassing his wife. It was enough, ESPN said, that he had taken a leave of absence. The sports channel even gave me a statement to that effect when I talked about the bizarre case on CNN yesterday. Well, by last night the pressure had grown too great, as the New York Post reports:

"Steve Phillips is out at ESPN.

"The married baseball analyst was booted from his high-profile TV post after being caught in a sordid love tryst with a production assistant. The sports network stopped short of publicly saying Phillips, 46, was fired.

" 'Steve Phillips is no longer working for ESPN. His ability to be an effective representative for ESPN has been significantly and irreparably damaged, and it became evident it was time to part ways,' said ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz in a statement. But one well-placed source confirmed he had been canned."

Oh, and there's this: "The firing came as a representative announced Phillips was entering a treatment facility 'to address his personal issues.' "

We'll just have to enjoy the Yankees-Phillies World Series without him.

Harassing Harvey

I wrote last week about TMZ getting ensnared in a leak investigation, and LAT columnist James Rainey sides with the gossip site:

"Yes, Harvey Levin is my 1st Amendment hero, and I'm not (that) embarrassed to admit it. The man who stirs the putrid caldron of banal, soul-sucking celebrity infotainment -- epitomized by his TMZ website and TV show -- also works harder than just about anyone else in media and delivers a measure of what even traditional outlets must concede is real news.

"Levin has earned his outrage in recent days over the revelation that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (perhaps with the aid of the district attorney's office) and a Superior Court judge think it's a good idea to snoop around in a journalist's phone records. The multiple arms of the law went after Levin's phone logs in the apparent belief that it's more important to expose the individual who leaked the embarrassing news of Mel Gibson's drunken, anti-Semitic rant than to attend to messy technicalities like the independence of the press."

Obama suck-up award

Well, he kind of bestowed it on himself:

"Forgive me in advance for fawning, but Michelle Obama is the coolest first lady ever."--Charles Blow, New York Times

History's shortest presidential campaign

Mike Allen, Politico, 9:01 a.m. Friday:

"Friends and associates are encouraging Fox News chief Roger Ailes to jump into the political arena for real by running for president in 2012, top sources tell POLITICO."

Mike Allen, Politico, 2:40 p.m. Friday:

"Fox News President and CEO Roger Ailes is laughing off the entreaties of some friends and associates and will not run for president in 2012, an aide said Friday."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN, where he hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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