In the Reign of the Grahams: How Shall We Judge Them?

There will be no shortage of histories and commentaries on the remarkable four-generations of the Meyer-Graham dynasty that has controlled the Washington Post, 1933-2013. One way to judge them is by the collective careers of the men and women they employed. Major media studies have tended to examine from the top. But starting in 1977, the design of the book that would be called “The Washington Reporters” (Brookings, 1981), was to explore from the bottom. I never interviewed Katharine Graham or Donald Graham; I did spend hundreds of hours with the reporters and editors of their paper. What I discovered, unlike at other giant media operations in my books, “was the degree to which they claimed that management found ways to give them a chance to mold their careers to fit their interests or needs.”

The foundation of “The Washington Reporters” was a survey of 450 journalists covering national government in 1978. The group included 17 reporters from the Post and 17 reporters from The New York Times. Beginning in 2004, my students at George Washington University and my Brookings interns hunted the 450, ultimately finding 90 percent and interviewed 283 of them. The findings are in a new book, “Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012,” which has just come out in a paperback edition. Among the Post people in the study: Warren Brown, Bill Claiborne, Victor Cohn, Ann Devroy, Helen Dewar, James Dickenson, Larry Fox, John Goshko, Jim Hoagland, Hal Logan, Morton Mintz, Don Oberdorfer, Bill Peterson, Eric Pianin, Walter Pincus, Eleanor Randolph, T.R. Reid, Bill Richards, James L. Rowe, Judy Rutter, Carole Shifrin, Anne Swardson.

Here are some choice excerpts from my recent edition of the Washington Reporters Book Series:

Chapter Four: Diversity

Between his junior and senior year at Harvard, Hal Logan interned at the Washington Post, and he was offered a full-time job upon graduation:“That was in 1973, and I remained in the newsroom until 1978. I had a wonderful time in the newsroom, and I was very happy having the ability to shape a story. But what I decided after four or five years was that I wanted the ability to shape how an entire paper covered issues, and specially how the paper covers issues of concern to African Americans. I’m an African American. There were a lot of guys I knew, reporters who were very good reporters and writers, but none of us knew the first thing about business. “So I decided to go to business school so that I could learn how to build and run a black-oriented newspaper. I got an MBA at Stanford in 1980. . . . I figured out why it’s so difficult for a black paper to be economically successful in Washington. . . . I returned to the Post as the assistant to the publisher. I guess I could say I got very interested in the notion of publishing a paper on a screen in addition to publishing it on a piece of paper. That pretty much set the path of much of my career since then. This was 1981. I became head of electronic publishing for the Post.”

Warren Brown got a degree in 1970 from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his classmates eventually steered him to the Washington Post. But first, following the conventional wisdom of the time, he got a job on a small newspaper, the New Orleans State Item, in order to work his way up to a big newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, with a short stopover in Chicago to work at Jet and Ebony magazines. The move from New Orleans to Chicago was a response to someone at Ebony who said, “You’re a hotshot Ivy League graduate, and you’re down there in the South burying dead white people.” (He was writing obituaries.) He arrived at the Post in 1976. “I was hired there to their national staff. I started out covering something euphemistically called urban affairs, which was just another way of saying civil rights, you know, and labor. . . . I wasn’t terribly happy there. Luckily, Frank Swoboda, who had become a business editor, gave me a chance to start writing business stories, which I found extremely interesting and much more gratifying.

“That was in 1982. And I asked if I could cover the automotive industry, and he gave me the go-ahead to do it, and gave me a lot of support while I was doing it. I literally fell in love with covering that industry. It’s just to me the most fascinating thing that anybody can write about, how all of this comes together: regulations, cars, products, personalities, just the whole chemistry of everything involved in it. I came back to Frank with an idea about some columns. He was at first not terribly enthusiastic, but he was a kind of person who gave you enough rope to hang yourself or to pull yourself further up. “I started writing the ‘On Wheels’ column at first for the ‘Weekend’ section, and I started writing the ‘Car Culture’ column about 2003, maybe 2004.”

Chapter Seven: In the Right or Wrong Place

In the 1975–2000 period, remembered correspondent John Goshko, “The Washington Post was a tremendously rich, profitable, powerful, and influential organization.”

That did not mean that every Post reporter or editor would remain at the paper or stay in journalism. Still, Goshko, whose final assignment was covering the United Nations in New York, concluded, “I got to do what I wanted to do, so you can’t really ask for very much more than that.” What Helen Dewar wanted to do was chronicle the U.S. Senate, which she did for 25 years, after first becoming the paper’s expert on Virginia politics. What Bill Claiborne wanted to do was get away from“the newspaper’s somewhat insular obsession with political power and process.”  When surveyed on April 10, 1978, he was preparing for his first overseas assignment. Six weeks later he left for Jerusalem. In 2001, when he and his wife retired to Melbourne, Australia, to be closer to their daughter and granddaughter, he had spent 32 years and 7 months with the Post, of which he calculated that 101 months (8.4 years) had been in Washington, most of that time at the beginning of his Post career in Washington on the Metro staff. “I believe I still hold the record at the Washington Post for the most bureau assignments—eight: New York, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Jerusalem again, Johannesburg, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Chicago. I sometimes wonder how I was able to maneuver myself into that kind of career path to fit my particular interests. I was very lucky.”

Don Oberdorfer also had an overseas assignment, Tokyo, but his primary beat for 17 years was as the paper’s diplomatic correspondent in Washington. “I never thought that I or anybody could cover a single beat for almost two decades and find it satisfying, but I did. The beat counted, particularly during the cold war. We owned the front page. All I had to do was say ‘I have a front-page,’ and automatically it went to the front page. . . . I covered a whole variety of secretaries of state, and it was a high-wire act, which meant that you had to really throw yourself into it. It was a six-days-a-week job, and you felt like you were doing something that made a contribution to the greater intelligence of Americans and others.”

From time to time Oberdorfer climbed down from the high wire. “I had actually five leaves of absence. Two of them were to write books. But the other three times I was a professor at Princeton, my alma mater. I taught a course about journalism, a seminar. And each time I audited courses and went to the library and met faculty members, listened to them, and learned. It was a great help to me. A journalist situated as I was knows about a thousand trees. If you were to ask me then what’s going on in Upper Volta, I could rattle it out and tell you in a few hours. But journalists situated as I was are not good at knowing the forest, the big picture. That’s where a great university comes in.”

What distinguished interviews with Post reporters from those in other large organizations—with the possible exception of the Wall Street Journal during this period—was the degree to which they claimed that management found ways to give them a chance to mold their careers to fit their interests or needs. T. R. Reid wanted to write about computers and relocate to Colorado:

“In around 1980 or so I was in Washington covering Congress [when] the first personal computers came out. I got very, very interested in them and built a computer. . . . Don Graham, who was then the publisher, said, ‘If my congressional reporter wants to go learn about computers, that’s okay with me. . . . Maybe the Washington Post will benefit somewhere along the line.’. . . And sure enough, I then wrote a column on computers for about 12 years that was syndicated nationally, so I guess they did.

“Anyway, so we moved out to the mountains of Colorado while I wrote this book about microchips. My wife is a native Coloradan. Most Coloradans, I think, wherever they live, have a dream of getting back to Colorado, and so my wife kept working on me and I kept working on the Washington Post, and so in 1984 they opened a Denver bureau, or Rocky Mountain bureau. It’s just a nice company, that’s all I can say.”

Walter Pincus, whose “Fine Print” column examines the CIA and national security, has been with the Post off and on since 1966, with time out to lead an investigation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to switch to the New Republic as executive editor, to take on part-time news consulting for NBC and CBS (until the Post bought up his TV contracts), and to earn a law degree at night from Georgetown when he was 68.

Of the seventeen Washington Post reporters in our 1978 survey, three were still there in 2011: intelligence columnist Pincus, automobile columnist Warren Brown, and foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland. Another eleven had still been with the paper when they retired or died. Three left the Post: Hal Logan, a computer innovator, made his fortune in Silicon Valley; Bill Richards, for personal reasons, moved to Seattle and spent most of his years in journalism with the Wall Street Journal; Carole Shifrin, a specialist in transportation news, became bureau chief in Dallas and London for Aviation Week.18 (Of the seventeen New York Times reporters surveyed, seven were still with the Times when they retired from journalism, and ten left the Times for other jobs, in or out of journalism.)