When the news of the sale of the Washington Post was announced yesterday, I got a knot in my stomach. It was nail in the coffin of the brand of journalism I used to work in and so admired.
In 1974, I went to work as an investigative reporter for Post-Newsweek Television, which was owned by the Washington Post. This was the period just after the Watergate scandal, in which Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had an integral role in bringing about the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Unlike newspapers and other news outlets today, Graham’s new organizations supported real, hard hitting reporting. When Woodward and Bernstein brought the Watergate story to Post editor Ben Bradlee, Graham supported their investigative reporting and Bradlee ran stories about Watergate when few other news outlets would touch the story.
As a result, Graham was the subject of one of the best-known threats in American journalistic history. It occurred in 1972, when Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, warned reporter Carl Bernstein about a forthcoming article: "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published."
As an act of intimidation, the Nixon administration also set its Federal Communications Commission onto the Post’s broadcast properties. Graham was under severe pressure in those years and she rose to that pressure.
On my first day at work at the Post’s WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, Florida, I was surprised to get a phone call from Katherine Graham. She welcomed me and acknowledged the pressure we were under at the time. But her real message was clear. “If you receive pressure from anyone—anyone at all—not to do your job, I want you to call me directly,” she said. “That’s very important.” She made me promise to call and gave me her direct number.
I never did call, though the next year at Post-Newsweek I was threatened, sued and called every name in the book. We worked hard and got it right. It was the era of good, tough journalism—long gone today. It was always comforting to know in those days that I was backed by the real iron lady, Katherine Graham.
I suspect that Graham is rolling in her grave today. It was her granddaughter that sold the Post to Jeff Bezos, a man with deep pockets and zero experience in journalism of any kind. For all the talk about maintaining journalistic ethics, that won’t happen with a ruthless businessman as the Post’s owner.
Newspapers are in trouble today not for lack of readers, but due to poor economic deals done through the years by owners more interested in the bottom line than good journalism. A lot of news organizations made a lot of bad investments.
Yes, of course, the technology and outlets have changed, but the demand for good reporting and storytelling is as powerful as ever. That never changes. Sadly, a generation now exists that doesn’t know the difference. It’s a very depressing time.
Those that believe that Bezos will save the Washington Post are wrong. The fact is we’ve lost one of the nation’s great journalistic institutions and the idea of it being revived is almost impossible. The news as we once knew it is long gone.