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Publisher gave long tether to Post writers


Before being hired by The Washington Post in 1969 to write editorials and columns, I was asked to meet with Katharine Graham, the publisher. We talked mostly about writing. She had read some of my articles in The New Republic, then a liberal magazine, and ones I had freelanced for the Post. She gave no hint of her political bents, nor made any suggestion that she was or would be a publisher hovering over the printed views of her columnists. Her sole, and understated, request of me was to write well and argue forcibly.

My first impression of Mrs. Graham that day -- of a noninterfering publisher who believed that newspapering was best bolstered by giving long tether to the writers -- would never alter. At her recent death, it was Katharine Graham’s professionalism that evoked gratitude from many, me included. Of her coming to the morning meetings of the Post’s 10 or so editorial writers, she wrote in 1977: “If my presence on these occasions is inhibiting or overpowering or even faintly chastening, the evidence cannot be found in silence and still less in deference. A certain irreverence, toward all things, is perhaps the prevailing spirit -- which is how it ought to be.”

A test came early. I wrote an editorial in the early 1970s supporting a female sportswriter’s demand to have access to the Yale Bowl football locker room for post-game interviews. The sportswriter had been derided as a pushy ingrate who should have been overjoyed just to be reporting on the game. Bulls in the press box dismissed her as an extremist. Not long after it ran, an informational sidewalk picket line appeared at the Post’s main entrance. Some two-dozen women were protesting the newspaper’s own sexism, as on display in the help-wanted classifieds that ran under male and female categories. Truck driver applicants had to be men, secretaries women. Protesters carried large signs with blown-up quotes about women’s equality from the locker room editorial. I don’t know what Mrs. Graham felt about the chanting protest while walking past it every day but I do remember her wryly saying in the morning meeting that the paper’s views on women’s rights were certainly well-received on the streets. Not long after, the job ads became gender-free. Other newspapers around the country soon followed.

A thornier moment came in the mid-1980s. Nancy Reagan wrote a book about her and her husband’s concern for poor people. I reviewed the book by describing it as self-serving, cliché-ridden hackwork not worth anyone’s time, much less money. Nancy Reagan phoned Katharine Graham to complain. The two had been gal pal lunch buddies for some time. I learned later that Mrs. Graham did confront the Post’s book editor on the wisdom of assigning that book to me. But the editor defended the choice and the review. The next time I saw Mrs. Graham, cordiality prevailed. No muzzling of me occurred.

This distancing was a luxury enjoyed by large numbers of Post writers whose politics and interests were of different stripes from hers. The names of Morton Mintz, William Greider, Roger Wilkins and Robert Maynard, to cite a few Post alumni with talents for dissent, come to mind.

It may have helped that daily journalism was not the sole focus of the publisher. She had other lives. Socially, Mrs. Graham belonged to the moneyed elite of Georgetown. She sought and received the dinner party friendship of the establishment’s wealthiest and seemingly mightiest members. Politically, “I was and am a centrist,” Mrs. Graham wrote in her autobiography. The centrism was reflected on the Post’s editorial page throughout the 1980s and ‘90s when it endorsed NAFTA, aid to the contras, the U.S. military bombings in Grenada, Libya, Panama, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yugoslavia. The centrism continues today on the Post’s dreary and predictable op-ed page, which overwhelmingly carries columns by conservative or moderate white males and seldom writers who are female, left, offbeat, pro-consumer or critical of corporate or military excesses.

Mrs. Graham would see these editorial choices as virtues. Others wouldn’t. Fair enough. As far I could tell, political differences were not personalized. “Papers that want to serve and keep their readership,” she wrote in 1977, “cannot afford to be eccentric or extreme. As Walter Lippman once remarked to me, a newspaper may be a little to the left of its community, or a little to the right, but it cannot move too far from the center of opinion without alienating its audience and losing readers of the paper.”

After leaving the editorial page staff in 1978 -- it was moving rightward, and I was moving left -- I continued writing columns, book reviews and articles for the paper for the next 20 years. Professionally, it was a privileged life, one to be grateful for to a fair-minded publisher.

Colman McCarthy, who continues to write for The Washington Post and other papers, directs The Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. His forthcoming book is I’d Rather Teach Peace: The Class of Nonviolence.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001