A couple of decades ago, I was the editor of the Style section of Katharine Graham’s newspaper, The Washington Post. My boss came to me with a copy of her soon-to-be published memoirs and the assignment to carve out an excerpt to run in the paper.
The trouble was, I had too much to choose from. There was her strange childhood as the daughter of fantastically wealthy and distracted parents, raised by hired staff in mansions and country estates (Donald Trump now owns one of her girlhood homes) as her father pursued empires and her mother devoted herself to the arts.
There was her foray as a young reporter on the docks of San Francisco in the middle of a bitter strike, complete with a sexy subplot involving a dashing union executive.
I recall settling on her candid, painful account of the nervous breakdown and emotional collapse of her husband, Philip L. Graham, whose 1963 suicide put her in control of the newspaper her father had handed to him years earlier. But I can’t argue with the selection by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and her partner Josh Singer in the new film “The Post.”
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep, the movie catches the publisher and chairman — her friends called her Kay, but to me she is Mrs. Graham — in the hour of crisis when, in 1971, she risked her inheritance by publishing the classified Pentagon Papers despite a court order enjoining the New York Times.
It was a career-defining episode of high drama, a stark reminder why freedom of the press is the first of our enumerated rights: not because the press is sacred (more on that later) but because information is a predicate of wise self-government.
Last week, I heard Mrs. Graham recalling that moment, courtesy of the gifted interviewer Terry Gross, who replayed part of a long-ago episode of Gross’s radio show, “Fresh Air.” Listening, I thought, “God, I miss her,” not because we were close (hardly!) but because she was so frank and genuine and sensible, which seemed like simple virtues until they vanished from our lives in a noisy, crazy cloud.
Imagine someone talking like this now: “I’m going to tell you what I think about the Style section,” she told me over lunch in her office. “And you are going to listen politely — and then you’ll ignore me just like everyone else does. But I am going to say it anyway.”
My second reaction was delight in the fact that she finally has her own movie. Like a lot of reporters of my vintage, I was captivated by “All the President’s Men,” a version of the Watergate drama tailored for Hollywood by two very male sensibilities, Bob Woodward’s and Robert Redford’s. Only gradually did I realize that it was truly Mrs. Graham’s tender anatomy poised over “a big fat wringer” (in the angry words of Nixon crony John Mitchell) as the scandal got hot. Myth, rather than history, elided her decisive character in favor of Jason Robards as executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, the manliest man around.
On reflection, though, I wonder if a further way to memorialize Mrs. Graham would be to look beyond crises to the quality of American journalism in the day to day. Modesty ranked high among her winsome attributes. She understood that good journalism is not a romantic sequence of high-stakes showdowns. It is a flaw-specked but sincere effort to learn about the world and reflect it honestly, in little increments, without fear or favor.
Those last few words are a commonplace bordering on cliche. But let’s pause a moment with them. Fearless journalism is not just reporting in the face of adverse power. Another brand of courage is the guts to tell one’s friends that their assumptions may be mistaken. It’s the willingness to push oneself to dig deeper and think harder. To understand bad guys and challenge heroes. To ask ourselves why we think as we do and could we be wrong.
With the rise of the Internet and disruption of institutional media, many journalists have cheerfully shrugged off the ideal of objectivity. This certainly makes tweeting easier, and I suppose forthright bias is more honest than the camouflaged kind.
But better still is the genuine objectivity of an open, curious, careful mind. Readers won’t always like what it produces; seeing the world in all its mixed-up shades of gray is not necessarily comforting. But most of them respect it when they see it. Journalists who strive to deliver it bank credibility in small doses over time, humbly acknowledging their blind spots and errors.
Katharine Graham is having her Hollywood moment because she gave the right answer when history popped its quiz. But her crucial lesson for today is that she asked the right questions: Are we sure we’ve got it right?
Could we be wrong?
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