For more than 40 years I have been lucky enough to be part of The Washington Post.
There are no words that could sum up how grateful I am to have had this opportunity to write about subjects I care deeply about, and for a readership that often responded in ways that showed they too cared, whether they agreed with what I wrote or not.
It was Ben Bradlee who hired me originally in 1966, and three generations of the Graham family plus a group of editors that put up with me, even when what I wrote seemed critical of issues they believed in or individuals they admired.
Years ago, I once walked into Ben’s office to ask for a raise. He listened for a moment — he never gave you his full attention for more than a minute or two — and with his wonderful smile he growled back, “You ought to pay me for all the fun you are having.” Ben was right.
I recognize journalism is changing. The evolving Washington Post is different from the June 1, 1960 edition when I shared my first Page One byline, before I even was a staff member. But The Post’s role influencing government in Washington and national politics has never been more critical. More than once I have been told The Post’s front page, along with that of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, is better than a White House memo if you want to reach the president.
Leaving The Post, I have three concerns — not about this newspaper, but related to journalism as a whole, the profession which I love.
One is how much more influential the media has grown to become, first with television news shows, then 24-hour cable and now with the Internet and Twitter.
The second is how much better so-called newsmakers have become at influencing what is written and broadcast to the public. In many ways I feel journalistic ventures have become “common carriers,” printing whatever newsmakers say — even if they know them to be untrue or inflammatory — just because the person involved was willing to be quoted and because such stories generate readers, viewers and, these days, hits on the Web.
The third is that the current competitive rush to be first in both breaking news and slick commentary is leaving behind the facts related to the complex issues of our time. Facts seem to be taking a back seat to arguments and slogans in what’s written and shown. That means the public is left to make up their minds on important subjects by choosing between arguments without knowing much about the facts that may or may not underlie them.
In short, we have been moved further into a PR society and, sadly, public relations has become a key part of government and our politics.
Here are some areas of national security — my focus of attention — where mainstream media should provide more facts.
•The reality of the threat from terrorism: The Islamic State, as with al-Qaeda, al-Shabab and other current terrorist groups, needs to be put in some perspective. After 9/11, a very wise intelligence officer told me in 2002, “We have turned 16 clever al-Qaeda terrorists into a worldwide movement, seemingly more dangerous to Americans than the communist Soviet Union with thousands of nuclear missiles.”
Never at the height of the Cold War did we institute the security actions at home that have been taken and are being contemplated to meet what’s been described as the current terrorist threat. President Obama put it in perspective during a Dec. 21, National Public Radio interview when he said, “This is not an organization that can destroy the United States . . . But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried. The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are.”
•Intervention into the Middle East and Central Asia: The United States is the strongest military power in the world and the American political system the most democratic. That does not mean other countries, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, with far different histories, cultures and religions, will accept Washington’s advice or direction on their forms of government.
Remember, it took a bloody, four-year U.S. civil war with some 620,000 Americans killed on both sides with another 460,000 wounded to hold this country together. Vietnam should have proved that the American form of government is not easily transferred to other countries.
•Covering the Defense Department means more than what went right or wrong: The Defense Department has a $548 billion core budget for this fiscal year, more than half the discretionary funds in the entire U.S. budget. How that money is used needs coverage. The increase for nuclear weapons, future pay and allowances, including health care for service members and their families, and base closings need examination.
There’s another $59 billion for overseas contingency operations that pays for fighting terrorism, the undeclared war that the American people have not been taxed extra to pay for. They should.
How the Pentagon operates is another area. Follow the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is taking a serious look at the military’s structure and overlapping activities and even the future role of Joint Combatant Commanders.
I’m not planning to leave these suggestions just for others to pick up when I no longer appear in The Post. This is not the end of my Fine Print column. Starting Feb. 2, I will appear weekly on a relatively new national security website, the Cipher Brief. Once I finish writing a book about the U.S. nuclear weapons program, I expect to return to doing the column twice a week.
So this is hardly a goodbye. It is just till we meet again.