FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The High Life of Katharine Graham

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Joe Pulitzer famously said, “A newspaper has no friends.” Looking at the massed ranks of America’s elites attending Katharine Graham’s funeral in Washington last Monday, it’s maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it’s true. At least in political terms Mrs Graham had way too many friends. Her newspaper had its hour when she had real enemies, when Nixon’s attorney general was screaming his famous threat and when Nixon was threatening to pull her company’s Florida tv licenses.

The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs Graham’s name as a courageous publisher, came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She’d had eight years to overcome the initial timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham’s suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. But the amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administrations palavering happily in her dining room hadn’t yet numbed the spinal nerve of the Post as any sort of spirited journalistic enterprise.

Mrs Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation’s biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. In truth it was a richly symbolic setting for Mrs Graham’s exit. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with that ruthless nineteenthc c ntury railroad king, E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman, was often to be seen at Mrs Graham’s house in Georgetown, and it was Averell who once furnished a reminder of the journalistic facts of life so trenchant that every reporter and editor should have it tacked to their walls.

Writing in 1943 to his friend James Lovett at the War Department, Harriman rasped his fury that Newsweek had dared question the efficiency of daylight bombing of Germany, a tactic devised by Lovett: “Tell Roland [Averell’s brother, then a director of Newsweek, owned by Vincent Astor, who later sold it to Phil Graham] that I am in dead earnest and will brook no compromise. I have not supported Newsweek for ten years through its grave difficulties to allow our hired men to use the magazine to express their narrow, uninformed or insidious ideas Roland has my full authority to use any strong-arm measures he considers necessary the other directors can be asked to resign if they do not go along.”

Did Mrs Graham privately strong-arm her staff in this fashion? We doubt it. But editors and reporters are not slow to pick up clues as to the disposition of the person who pays the wages, and Mrs Graham sent out plenty of those.

In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers’ Association and issued a warning: “The press these days should be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” She called for a return to basics. Journalists should “stop trying to be sleuths.” In other words: The party’s over, boys and girls! It’s not our business to rock the boat.

She repeated the message in 1988 in a speech to CIA recruits titled “Secrecy and the Press”: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

Mrs Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father Eugene Meyer. Perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as “Kepone Kate” after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River, we remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored “those fucking environmentalists.” Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.

By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s who would amiably associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader, Harry Bridges, on the Oakland docks was very long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen’s strike in 1975, and the ultimately successful lockout. Rhetorically at least Mrs Graham would not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen’s Union with the overall disposition of the AFL-CIO, but she never forgave labor and that strike helped set Mrs Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.

In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 per cent of the Post’s B stock and who was then riding high as America’s most venerated stock player, and imperishably hailed in the mid-1980s by an ad man (to the New York Times) thus: “Long ago Warren identified communications companies as the bridge between the manufacturer and the consumer.” Graham became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served. Probably the most tedious (and useless) interview ever published by the Post, or any newspaper for that matter, was Mrs Graham’s interview in Moscow about the minutiae of arm-control with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Another press mogul, Lord Northcliffe, founder of Britain’s popular press, once famously advised his reporters, “Never lose your sense of the superficial”, by which he meant, “Be sprightly, make our readers sit up.” What would Northcliffe have said about the Post’s nadir, symbolic of what Mrs Graham had allowed, maybe even had urged to happen: the 7-part, multi-thousand word series published in January, 1992. The series launching this election year was by two of the Post’s most prominent reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who “for six months followed the Vice President everywhere”and “spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr Quayle”, discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much undertestimated statesman of wise and discriminating stature.

In the early 1990s we used to get copies of letters sent to the Post’s editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told us the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.

Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the “in-depth” exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, health care, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS. “Perhaps,” Holmes wrote, “the explanation for these obviously shallow interviews lies in the institutional philosophy of the Washington Post Company and in the kinds of writers the Post hires.” (You can see why Holmes didn’t get published in the Post.)

No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a young ‘un on the way up. The Post’s basic instincts have almost always been bad.

Former mayor Marion Barry had some pro-forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death but we’ve always thought that one decisive verdict on the Post’s performance in a city with a major black population came with that jury verdict acquitting Berry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and we’ve no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs Graham had an excessive amount of friends. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 23, 2017
Chip Gibbons
Crusader-in-Chief: the Strange Rehabilitation of George W. Bush
Michael J. Sainato
Cybersecurity Firm That Attributed DNC Hacks to Russia May Have Fabricated Russia Hacking in Ukraine
Chuck Collins
Underwater Nation: As the Rich Thrive, the Rest of Us Sink
CJ Hopkins
The United States of Cognitive Dissonance
Howard Lisnoff
BDS, Women’s Rights, Human Rights and the Failings of Security States
Mike Whitney
Will Washington Risk WW3 to Block an Emerging EU-Russia Superstate
John Wight
Martin McGuinness: Man of War who Fought for Peace in Ireland
Linn Washington Jr.
Ryancare Wreckage
Eileen Appelbaum
What We Learned From Just Two Pages of Trump’s Tax Returns
Mark Weisbrot
Ecuador’s Elections: Why National Sovereignty Matters
Thomas Knapp
It’s Time to End America’s Longest War
Chris Zinda
Aggregate Journalism at Salon
David Welsh
Bay Area Rallies Against Trump’s Muslim Ban II
March 22, 2017
Paul Street
Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer, the Progressive Caucus and the Cuban Revolution
Gavin Lewis
McCarthyite Anti-Semitism Smears and Racism at the Guardian/Observer
Kathy Kelly
Reality and the U.S.-Made Famine in Yemen
Kim C. Domenico
Ending Our Secret Alliance with Victimhood: Toward an Adult Politics
L. Ali Khan
Profiling Islamophobes
Calvin Priest
May Day: Seattle Educators Moving Closer to Strike
David Swanson
Jimmy Breslin on How to Impeach Trump
Dave Lindorff
There Won’t Be Another Jimmy Breslin
Jonathan Latham
The Meaning of Life
Robert Fisk
Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman
Steve Horn
Architect of Federal Fracking Loophole May Head Trump Environmental Council
Binoy Kampmark
Grief, Loss and Losing a Father
Jim Tull
Will the Poor Always Be With Us?
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s “March Massacre” Budget
Joe Emersberger
Rafael Correa and the Future of Ecuador: a Response to James McEnteer
March 21, 2017
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt
On Being the “Right Kind of Brown”
Kenneth Surin
God, Guns, Gays, Gummint: the Career of Rep. Bad Bob Goodlatte
David Rosen
Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape
Ryan LaMothe
The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy
Eric Sommer
The House Intelligence Committee: Evidence Not Required
Mike Hastie
My Lai Massacre, 49 Years Later
James McEnteer
An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?
Evan Jones
Beyond the Pale
Stansfield Smith
First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump
Dulce Morales
A Movement for ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ Takes Shape
Pepe Escobar
Could Great Wall of Iron become New Silk Roadblock?
Olivia Alperstein
Trump Could Start a Nuclear War, Right Now
David Macaray
Norwegians Are the Happiest People on Earth
March 20, 2017
Michael Schwalbe
Tears of Solidarity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done
Peter Stone Brown
Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail