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The Katharine Graham era: Bob Kaiser on The Washington Post

Graham led The Post to prominence and earned a reputation as one of the most admired women of her time. These photos are drawn from The Post and the exhibit, "One Life."

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Friday, October 1, 2010; 12:00 PM

The National Portrait Gallery's One Life: Katharine Graham exhibition, which opens Friday, explores the legacy of the Washington Post publisher who guided the paper to prominence and became an icon of American journalism.

Narrated Photo Gallery

Katharine Graham: Portrait of a lady, on display in D.C. (Post, Oct. 1)

Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser, who has been at the Post since joining as an intern in 1963, will be online Friday, Oct. 1, at Noon ET to take your questions on Graham's legacy and how The Washington Post has changed over the decades.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Welcome to a chat about Katharine Graham and the legacy she has left us. I welcome your thoughts and comments, and any KG stories you may know as well. We'll do this for about an hour, or until the questions run out.

Let me start with a plug for Mrs G's wonderful book, Personal History. It did not win the Pulitzer Prize for biography because she was an important person. It won because it is a truly splendid book, and fascinating. And it's now in paperback!

Yes, she and I have the same publisher, I confess it. But that has nothing to do with this plug.

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Poplar Bluff, MO: Mr. Kaiser, thanks for your chat. The picture on today's website showed Mrs. Graham talking to Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate investigation. Everyone knows the role of Mr. Bradlee and other editors at the Post in the book and movie of "All the President's Men". What was Mrs. Graham's role during the investigation? Did she have day-to-day knowledge of the investigation and did she get any outside pressure. It is a shame she did not share any of the spotlight that the other participants were given. Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: The important fact about KG that outsiders rarely believe when I say it is this: She did not meddle in the newsroom at all. In my article today I cite one of my favorite examples, the book review that Ward Just, then a Post writer, did of a a terrible book by Robert McNamara published in 1968. Just called McNamara's book "indecent." He was one of KG's closest friends at the time. Nothing happened.

So her role in the Watergate story was to ask Ben Bradlee a lot of questions, and watch nervously. Ben knew as well as she how important it was that the Post proceed carefully. And they did. The famous story of the one mistake -- a technicality really -- that is told in all the books is really a reminder of how much care was taken.

KG left the direction of the coverage to Ben and other editors, as she always did.

We'll give you a link to my story of today right here, I hope.

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Waycross, Ga: What do you think Mrs. Graham would say about the current cable news networks, especially an outfit like FOX that is so over-the-top biased?

Robert G. Kaiser: KG was old school. She believed in being fair and straight in the paper. An interesting historical tidbit: Ted Turner once approached her about buying CNN in its early years. She decided she wasn't interested, I suspect because she really wasn't interested. I think she would have been really upset to see what has happened to the media world, not just the rise of tendentious and opinionated "news," but also the economic distress of her beloved newspaper business.

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washingtonpost.com: Katharine Graham: Portrait of a lady, on display in D.C.

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Washington, D.C.: What similarities do you see between Mrs. Graham and her granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth? And how might Mrs. Graham have reacted to the business opportunity and challenges of the Internet?

Robert G. Kaiser: Two classy dames with a lot of brains, living and working in radically different environments. KG supported the growth of The Post into a world-class news organization, and presided over year after year of fat profits after the pressmen's strike of 1975, an historic event for her, for The Post and for the newspaper industry. She has a wonderful account of it in her book. Before 1975 the Post, like most American newspapers, was a low-profit enterprise. But in the '80s and '90s profits soared.

Now they have fallen back to earth--or a little lower! Katharine Weymouth has to preside over a modest shrinkage of her enterprise, and has to find new ways to keep it afloat. Today The Post is back in the black, but it lost money in '08 and '09. When KG was alive, it often had profits of well over $100 million a year. Hard to overstate the significance of this change.

KG was here for the early years of the Internet. She supported me, when I was managing editor in the '90s, in putting the paper "on line" for the first time. She was curious about this new medium, and not at all afraid of it. Perhaps not sufficiently afraid of it!

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Los Angeles, California: What do you think Katharine Graham would think of -- or would she even understand -- the emergence of new media like Huffington Post or Politico, which to some extent now occupy turf that used to belong to the Washington Post alone?

On the one hand, it seems like these new organizations reflect some of the same ambition and imagination to create something new -- the Style section, a reinvigorated Newsweek -- that marked her career.

On the other, the fast-paced and even Wild West atmosphere of today's media universe does seem a long way from what Katharine Graham would have found familiar.

Any thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good comments, with which I agree. I think the key change from the great old days to now is this: For years, The Post and the other great newspapers gave their readers rewards that were rare, scarce--from great journalism about important issues to classified advertising, TV listings and comics. All the features of a great metropolitan newspaper satisfied needs that were not easily satisfied elsewhere. We had a corner on the market, so to speak.

Today nothing we provide is unique or rare. The Internet provides everything we do except the experience of holding a newspaper in your hands and reading through it from front to back. And the arrival of the I-PAD tells us that an electronic version of this experience is also with us already or coming very soon.

This is why our business model has been shot full of holes. For me personally, the most important question is, can we preserve the great news organization that has grown up in this institution in the 47 (!) years that I have worked here? That organization is expensive. It now consists of more than 600 journalists. Paying a big staff was a piece of cake in the fat years--classified ads alone could cover the costs. But Craig's List doesn't contribute to our newsroom budget.

KG was not a stick-in-the-mud. She'd have been entertained by Huffington Post and Politico. But she was smart, too, and wouldn't have confused what they provide with the best Washington Post journalism.

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Washington, DC: One of the most remarkable things about "Personal History" is the way she presents herself: not the confident, brassy woman she was in public, but the self-doubting, damaged, insecure woman she saw herself as. Were you surprised by the way she depicted herself? Did the book give a full picture of her?

Robert G. Kaiser: I was stunned by the honesty of her book, but not surprised by what she revealed, because in fact, she wasn't a "confident, brassy woman" in public. Her insecurities were never far from the surface; she revealed them all the time. I wrote about this today in the context of the filmed interview of her that was done at the National Portrait Gallery in 1992, which shows her nervous hands, her uncertainty, her darting eyes--all clues to the scared little girl that always lurked inside that formidable figure. There are many reasons to admire KG, but for me, her ability to overcome those insecurities and become such a remarkable figure on the world stage, and such a great executive of this company, is reason number one.

The book gave a remarkably full picture of her. She skipped over a few intimate subjects, but not many.

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Middletown, CT: Your mention of "the economic distress of her beloved newspaper business" leads me to wonder: How do you think Mrs. Graham would have responded to the current economic climate that is so unfavorable to the newspaper industry? I read recently that the Post Corporation has migrated more deeply into the educational field, as newspaper revenue shrinks. Do you think she would have embraced that move? Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: Mrs. Graham was personally responsible for the decision to acquire Kaplan, an acquisition suggested by Richard Simmons, for years her Main Man in the business affairs of The Post. It is Kaplan that puts us into the education business. At the time, as she admitted years later, she had no idea what a great business it would become, or how important it would be to the health of The Washington Post Co. Today the company's profits come primarily from Kaplan, which would certainly have surprised her.

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Rockville: Hello,

I read Mrs. Graham's autobiography and truly enjoyed it. Although she was born in to wealth, what was remarkable about her was she chose to take a leadership role when it was needed. I also admired how she described her reluctance and somewhat insecurity to be a leader but still she did it at a time when men were running things.

Thank you.

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you. A good comment.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Anyone care to speculate on what would have happened (reputation, economic, ownership or otherwise) had the Post's coverage of Watergate fizzled? (My take, in the early stages, not much. As the paper ventured further down the path, almost alone, it would have been perceived as 'vendetta' and might have had serious implications for the paper.) This cannot have been a decision made lightly, eh?

Robert G. Kaiser: I guess I am a possible anyone, so I'll speculate briefly. I assume by "fizzled" you mean if Nixon had survived as president despite the Post's stories--an outcome that the editors and reporters who worked on the story expected for many months. In retrospect Nixon's resignation may look inevitable, but it was far from that until the very last weeks of the scandal, when Republicans in Congress decided he had to go.

So if he had survived, he surely would have tried every trick in his book to repay The Post. It probably wouldn't have been much fun covering the White House for this newspaper. What Woodward and Bernstein did was invaluable to the evolution of The Post as a great paper, but I hope and believe that the evolution would have occurred, no doubt more slowly, even without the drama of Nixon's resignation. Many commentators said then and since that "The Washington Post brought Nixon down," but we here always knew that was ridiculous. Only the impeachment process in Congress, exploiting the subpoena power available to congressmen but not to reporters, could have led to Nixon's resignation.

It's important to remember that by 1974, the year Nixon resigned, The Post was no longer alone on the story. Seymour Hersh, then of The New York Times, had joined the fray with gusto, giving Carl and Bob serious competition, and other news organizations were on the story too.

Of course the decisions to keep after the story here were not made lightly.

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"All The President's Men": As I recall, Mrs. Graham was not depicted in the film "All The President's Men," right? Was this an artistic decision by the producers and director, or did she refuse to allow herself to be portrayed (and if so, why)?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sadly we can't put that question to Alan Pakula, the great director who made the movie, because he died in a freak auto accident many years ago. But I suspect he wanted to keep the focus on three Post characters: Ben, Carl and Bob -- or, more accurately, Jason Robards, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. And he wanted to stick closely to the facts, which would have made any Kay Graham character pretty much of a walk-on. As I said above, she wasn't really deeply involved in the story -- or any story done at The Post in her years as our boss. She really believed that the publisher (her job) should leave the journalism to the editors. In my seven years as managing editor, she never asked me to put anything in the paper, keep anything out of the paper, or color coverage of any story.

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Ames, Iowa: I read "Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post A Great Newspaper Fights for Its Life" with delight at the stories of the very good writers and great sadness at the ongoing dilemma of how to adapt to the Wild West environment of the Web. If one of the country's best newspapers is struggling like this, what happens to the kind of quality reporting that we need even more in this era of polarized, shrill, contentious public discourse?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you, thank you. This of course is The Big Question. A dozen years ago we had many fine news organizations in newspaper newsrooms that are today shadows of their former selves, from The Los Angeles Times to the Chicago Tribune to the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald. No American newspaper is thriving economically, and none of the new institutions have ambitions remotely as big as those of the great papers. If those news organizations cannot survive, the republic will suffer. Somebody has got to hold the powerful accountable for the ways they use their power.

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Richmond, Va.: In the picture gallery bio, it says that Mrs. Graham was raised to be a good wife and at the death of her husband took over the newspaper. What background enabled her to go from good wife to good newspaperwoman? In other words, had she been around the newspaper while she was married, plus socially connected while growing up and after her marriage, enabling her to know the business and who to pick (like Bradlee) once she was in charge?

Robert G. Kaiser: You have it exactly right. She had worked as a cub reporter in San Francisco after college, and had written for The Post editorial page as a young woman. She grew up in a household where The Post was always Topic A, and she got to know all the people her father and husband had hired to run the place. And she had made friends with some key characters who gave her encouragement and advice after her husband's death, particularly two great columnists of that era, Walter Lippman and James Reston of the NY Times. The latter two encouraged her to make a change in the editorial leadership of the paper, which led to Bradlee being hired, the most important decision she ever made.

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Bethesda: I'm curious as to how you view Ms. Graham's relationship with Warren Buffet. Not to be judgmental, but it strikes me as interesting that someone with such high moral and ethical standards as she could be involved with someone who was so publicly married.

Robert G. Kaiser: To REALLY avoid being judgmental, I'll pass on this one. I know no more than you do about their relationship.

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washingtonpost.com: What really happened when Warren met Katharine

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Native Californian: Which San Francisco union leader did Katharine Graham have a romance with when she was a cub journalist fresh out of college? Was it Harry Bridges?

Robert G. Kaiser: No not Harry Bridges! (Bridges was a very left-wing character and a bit of a thug too). The man's name was Pat Patton, and you can read about it in her book.

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Baltimore MD: Mr. Kaiser: Thanks for taking questions and comments. I have been a Post reader since coming to AU in 1966. I have to say, I am always amused by the online commenters who are vitriolic about the paper today being left wing. If they could go back and read the columns of Nicholas von Hoffman (hired under the ownership of Mrs. Graham and editorship of Mr. Bradlee), I think their heads would explode.

Was Mrs. Graham much of a presence in the newsroom?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the observation. You're on to something.

KG loved the newsroom, and came down from her 8th-floor lair to hang out with her two favorites on our fifth floor, Bradlee and Meg Greenfield, editor for many years of the editorial page. But the only place she regularly met editors and reporters was at her lunch table. She loved inviting prominent figures to have lunch with Post journalists, and we loved the events, usually.

One quick anecdote: I feared for a moment that she might do something seriously bad to me when I asked one of her lunch guests, Henry Kravis, whose buyout firm had just acquired one of the biggest tobacco companies, if he had any qualms about owning a company that made a product that killed people. This was my first direct experience of the thing often referred to in bad novels as "a withering look." She obviously thought I had violated the most basic rules of proper decorum.

But nothing bad did happen.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks to all for your contributions.

Read the book!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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