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Decline But Not Fall

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Bettmann/Corbis
The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee leaving US District Court after winning a ruling in the Pentagon Papers case, 1971

Eugene Meyer, a Wall Street plutocrat with an itch to perform in the nation’s capital, bought The Washington Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933. The price was $825,000, but the paper was so far decayed that Meyer had to keep dipping into his own capital for the next ten years to keep it alive. It doesn’t seem to have pinched him financially; when contemplating the purchase, his wife Agnes asked her diary a question distinctive to shoppers overburdened with spending money: “What after all is money for if not to be used”?

Before embarking on journalism Meyer had been a Wall Street figure on the grand scale, a “titan” as novelists like to call such glittering specimens of triumphant capitalism. He was a millionaire perhaps forty times over in an age when a million dollars was still real money and he had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, as well as connections at the White House, having performed honorable chores for Presidents Wilson and Coolidge. Under President Hoover he became chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, but resigned after Franklin Roosevelt’s election and began shopping the Washington newspaper market.

Though Meyer was a Californian and his career had tied him to New York, frequent work in Washington had given him a taste for its marble splendors and proletarian pomp. Agnes’s diary suggests that she and Eugene both thought that owning a local newspaper might help them become people of consequence in the capital—“players,” in today’s political jargon. Eugene’s buying the paper “will be a sensation,” Agnes told her diary, and—since they had told friends they were “done with Washington”—they would “have a reputation for Machiavellian behavior.” It was also, she wrote, “a great opportunity for E. to be a dominant influence in this formative period of the new America.”

Eugene made the purchase at the bottom of the Great Depression, and the Meyer family has controlled The Washington Post ever since, either from the publisher’s office or the chairmanship of the Washington Post Company, a fat and robust diversified corporation begot by the newspaper’s thundering financial success in the latter half of the twentieth century. The paper’s present publisher is Eugene Meyer’s great-granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth; the company chairman is Donald Graham, Meyer’s grandson, who had been the Post‘s publisher before Ms. Weymouth.

Before Donald the paper had been run by Meyer’s daughter Katharine Graham, in Washington circles invariably known as “Kay,” though occasionally “Katie,” as when the attorney general of the United States told a Post reporter that unless the paper quit being beastly to President Nixon, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.” Kay’s ascension was not by a father’s nepotistic edict; far from it. Obedient to the masculine culture of the age, Meyer thought so little of her business head that he bequeathed a 70 percent share of the Post to her husband, Philip Graham—in Washington circles always called “Phil” and invariably described as a “genius.” Most persons so called are not geniuses but just terribly good at what they do; Phil was certainly that, but the celebrated brilliance and talent were gradually overshadowed in 1963 by a grotesque onset of manic-depressive illness, during which he proposed to divorce Kay, marry another woman, and take full possession of the paper. As the disease often does, Phil’s ended in suicide, and Kay came into full power.

Her years of control, in cahoots with her personally selected executive editor, Benjamin C. Bradlee—always “Ben” in Washington’s pseudo-intimate style—are now looked upon at the Post as a mythic age. Its Watergate coverage had proved the Post could do journalism with the best; business was booming; first-class reporters and editors clamored to work there, and Bradlee was not hesitant about spending to get talent and stories. Not a bad showing for a woman whose father had held her business acumen in such low esteem that he tried to write her out of the company.

The mythic age must have felt like a heavy burden on those who had to follow Kay and Ben, and most especially on Kay’s son Donald—in the Washington style, “Don,” of course—and on his own personally selected executive editor, Leonard (“Len”) Downie Jr. They had the misfortune to be in charge when the great newspaper blight first began attacking print journalism, and they were inevitably destined to be taxed for letting it infect the Post, though there was no better chance of anyone’s stopping the newspaper blight than of stamping out Dutch elm disease.

In Morning Miracle, his portrait of the Post as it struggles with the blight, Dave Kindred skates a bit delicately around this inevitable problem for the bosses of the post-mythic era, rather as though he thinks that dwelling upon it might be unduly cruel to Don and Len. Kindred seems to belong to that small class of reporters who are happiest when writing kindly about people. Like many news reporters who take up book writing, he may suffer from the journalist’s fear that “objectivity” is violated by pronounced judgment and plausible speculation and that duty is done when excesses of facts are left for the baffled reader to interpret for himself.

Kindred’s book is weakened by his decision not to attack his subject head on, but to use a mosaic approach, coming at his subject from a variety of points of view not held together by a narrative thread. His purpose, his subtitle says, is to depict the Post fighting for its life. Yet the fight does not seem to be happening in the main arena; often there doesn’t even seem to be a main arena. Kindred, whose writing has considerable charm, wanders genially into entertaining sideshows, gracefully sketching word portraits of assorted reporters on the job. Some of these, and notably his moving account of Dana Priest and Anne Hull exposing the disgraceful treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed hospital, are connected only tenuously to the fight-for-life theme and seem to belong in an entirely different book, something about heroes and heroines of the newsroom perhaps.

The great newspaper blight—that bizarre affliction that mysteriously turns the reading public away from the rich pleasures and delights of the daily press—is too often reduced to accounts of incomprehensible projects for adapting print to electronic keystrokes.

Despite Kindred’s nervous frittering around its edges there is a fine entertaining yarn in the story of Donald Graham, a dynastic tale of family wealth and corporate power that might have interested Henry James, perhaps even the Coen brothers. Donald was destined from childhood to be publisher and seems to have spent his growing-up years preparing himself for the position, rather as a prince of Wales passes his youth cultivating kinglike qualities and behavior. Some children, denied the right to decide for themselves what they are going to be when they grow up, might turn out very badly, as the occasional prince of Wales has over the centuries, but Don became a model publisher-in-waiting.

His future was determined in 1954 when he was eight years old. That spring the Post purchased The Washington Times-Herald, its principal competitor in the morning newspaper field. It was a deal that led to the Post‘s eventual domination of the city’s newspaper market, but Eugene Meyer, then seventy-eight years old, also saw it as a guarantee that a Meyer dynasty would endure at least into his grandson’s generation. According to Kindred, Meyer said, “The real significance of this event is that it makes the paper safe for Donnie.”

Donnie’s exemplary youth carried him to the editorship of The Harvard Crimson, the campus paper that has produced fine journalists galore, and an internship at The New York Times with James “Scotty” Reston, perhaps the best Washington reporter of his day. During the Vietnam War, when the better class of American youth was managing to dodge military service, Donnie put on a uniform and went to war and did the state some service at Khe Sanh. Back in Washington, he delayed settling in at the Post and spent sixteen months as a District of Columbia policeman patrolling the capital’s grim low-income neighborhoods. Kindred writes:

Graham acted on the honorable principle that a Harvard degree should not exempt a man from a war while his country drafted poor high school kids. He also believed a man who would run a newspaper in the nation’s capital ought to know more about the city than how to find a parking space in Georgetown.

Here Kindred ventures a guess about a psychological motive for Donald’s putting himself in high-risk positions “in the immediate years after his father killed himself.” Perhaps he needed to prove to himself that he had the courage “to confront a ghost,” Kindred suggests. Whatever psychic forces may have been at work, when Donald succeeded his mother in 1979, he was a rare creature in the annals of American newspaper publishers—the publisher as Eagle Scout.

Unlike the legendary publisher-tyrants—Hearsts, Pulitzers, McCormicks, Chandlers, and many less notorious exemplars of arrogance—Donald Graham seemed utterly free of egomania, hated no one, terrified no one, and was genuinely liked even by reporters and editors, including those who disliked the somewhat staid character his policies imposed on a paper previously distinguished by fizz, sass, and fireworks. Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind—the litany of Boy Scout virtues is a quick and accurate summation of the young publisher’s character.

When his mother withdrew from the publisher’s office to become company chairman, Don inherited Ben Bradlee as executive editor, and Ben was clearly not Don’s kind of editor. Bradlee saw journalism as work for swashbucklers, for people who dared to take big risks, people who loved covering the big story—it was “better than sex,” he said. With Ben in charge, Post newsroom strivers felt it vital to perform in top gear, and reporters sometimes pushed their material too far and sometimes editors failed to demand reliable sources for stories they should have found suspiciously juicy.

Kindred cites the humiliating occasion when Janet Cooke, an inexperienced young reporter, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a sensational front-page story that turned out to be a creation of her own imagination. The Cooke story told of a “cherubic-faced” eight-year-old heroin addict who looked forward to a profitable career as a drug dealer. Once the Pulitzer award was announced, the fraud was inevitably and almost instantly exposed; apologies filled the air, Janet Cooke’s resignation was accepted immediately, and the Post announced that it was returning the prize. (Not an occasion for ceremonial dramatics since the prize consists of a certificate suitable for framing and a less than awesome sum of money, both of which arrive by mail.)

That the Post had been so easily bamboozled gave great pleasure to many in Washington. There hadn’t been such a good laugh at the mighty brought low since the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, his dignity loosened by a bibulous night on the town, was detained by the police for dancing in the Tidal Basin with a striptease performer named Fanne Foxe, aka, “the Argentine Firecracker.”

At the time of the Janet Cooke affair, Donald refused to accept Ben’s offered resignation, and during the convention of newspaper editors then occurring in Washington went out of his way to demonstrate that he stood with Bradlee, “literally,” Kindred writes. Bradlee recalled that photographers seemed to take hundreds of pictures of him, “but damn few—if any—without Don Graham’s arm around my shoulder. I’ll never forget it, and all these years later, his presence and his show of confidence still makes my neck tingle.”

Perhaps the loyalty to Ben was also loyalty to his mother. Ben, after all, had been her indispensable newsroom ally when she was learning to be publisher, and the paper that Ben made was Kay’s paper, too. Still, as he settled into the publisher’s office, Don appears to have felt that it was a paper with which he was not entirely comfortable. Kindred thinks Ben’s newspaper was “too often self-indulgent, overreaching, sensation-seeking” for Don’s taste.

Bradlee inspired descriptive words like “brilliance” and “glamour.” It would surely be overstatement to say that Don hated brilliance and glamour. More probably, they just did not define his own notion of the newspaper he wanted the Post to be. And so when Ben retired, at age seventy, Don finally chose his own editor, Leonard Downie Jr., the one person in his management hierarchy with whose journalistic philosophy and character, Kindred believes, Don felt completely comfortable.

The philosophy adhered to the classic faith that “objective” journalism is attainable through rigorously careful reporting and editing by employees able to preserve intellectual and emotional detachment from their stories. Downie was said to be so devoted to “objectivity” that he refused to vote in elections. His competence as reporter and editor was beyond cavil, and his instincts were of the sort likely to steer the Post from its occasionally liberal forays toward a more conventional middle-of-the-road position.

Kindred suggests that Don was taken, too, by Downie’s middle-class, midwestern style:

Downie’s highly developed political instincts had told him years before that glitz would be counterproductive. Better to be the not-Bradlee than Bradlee-lite because next time it would not be Mrs. Graham going for zest. It would be Don choosing competence.

Others in the newsroom did not see Don “choosing competence,” they saw Don dulling down the paper, a process noticeable too in the increasingly bland tone of the editorial page. Walter Pincus, a newsroom Nestor, oldest and wisest of the warriors who had served Ben and Kay, told Kindred that it was not the Internet that was crippling the paper but the management, which had gone badly wrong since Bradlee’s retirement. Pincus doubtless spoke for many newsroom people discontented with Don’s earnestly correct approach to the news, but his is the only dissident voice in Kindred’s book.

The Internet itself was not ruining the paper, Pincus argued. It was essentially a “headline service,” not a news service. And the “only time anybody’s on is between ten and four when they’re at work” and “nobody’s on it on the weekend.” Newspapers had lost audience through self-indulgence: they wrote stories for themselves instead of readers and produced blockbuster stories designed to win journalism prizes but destined to be unread by masses of people uninterested in the subject matter. The Post, for example, was “inundated” with political stories before election campaigns even began—“except in newspapers writing for each other.”

Pincus was describing a divorce between reader and newspaper, and he thought American journalism’s passion for “objectivity” deserved a lot of blame. It was ridiculous, “a lie,” to believe that a journalist could not have an opinion. The illusion of “objectivity” created reader detachment from a newspaper, and detachment leads to indifference and loss of another reader. Pincus was especially critical of the new methods adopted under the management of Don and Downie.

He saw “a sea change from the days when the Post gave proud, passionate reporters the freedom to find stories that leapt off the page and caught Ben Bradlee’s full attention,” Kindred writes. Pincus, with insouciant disregard for the career of Saint Paul, said that Bradlee “was the greatest journalist of all time. He’d take chances. He was always in the newsroom wanting to know what you were working on. That doesn’t happen now.”

When Downie took charge in 1991 it was unforeseeable that before his tenure ended, the paper Eugene Meyer had made “safe for Donnie” would no longer be safe for anyone, and that it might be completing a life cycle from ruin to glory to ruin in four generations. The newspaper blight was foreseen by very few in a position to do something about it, but one who tried at the Post was Robert Kaiser, then the managing editor. Kaiser had seen the electronic future in 1992 while attending a conference in Japan on multimedia communications, and he returned to Washington exuberant about what it could mean for the paper. This, as Kindred notes, was four years before the Internet became a widely used public tool. With an ebullient report about the electronic possibilities for the Post‘s future, Kaiser argued that something revolutionary was coming and required an aggressive response. “None of this is science fiction,” he wrote, “it’s just around the corner.”

His report went to Don Graham, Len Downie, and assorted executives, all of them deep in a contentment not unusual among corporate statesmen who have long basked in profit margins of 20 percent and up. Kaiser was addressing an executive suite grown drowsy perhaps with success and prosperity. This was no longer the struggling paper that Eugene Meyer had kept afloat with periodic injections of millions of his own money. The Post was now “lord of all it surveyed, unassailable behind walls of myth and money, the flagship of a mighty, diversified company,” Kindred writes; the executives’ response to Kaiser’s cry of urgency amounted to: “What, us worry?”

Now, eighteen years later, the blight has finished off several highly respectable papers, left many others palsied and witless, and reduced print journalism, once a vital element of American popular culture, to the verge of ruin. Its principal causes are quickly explained: a staggering loss of advertising revenue and a startling decline in readers, both ascribed to the Internet. The industry-wide failure of entrepreneurial daring and imagination, as demonstrated by the Post’s indifference to Kaiser’s alert, is too rarely mentioned, but such complacency was extensive in newspaper boardrooms and probably contributed generously to the ruin.

The extent of ruin may startle anyone not devoted to the business. Even Kindred, who had once worked for the Post, was unaware when he began his research that the paper was sinking into a melancholy funk. He had thought of a book perhaps in the romantic- sentimental vein, a “valentine,” as he put it, to the Post and the newspaper business. Post employees on whom he tested the valentine theme urged him to get a grip on himself and spoke in mortuary metaphors.

He asked a former editor what he ought to be looking for at the paper, and “she arched an eyebrow and said, ‘You mean, besides the death throes?’” A writer he greatly respected told him, “Your book is about a great newspaper dying with dignity.” Another said his title, “Morning Miracle,” which alludes to The Washington Post, should be lengthened to “Morning Miracle, R.I.P.” Kindred found a newsroom pessimism that was deadening to the antic spirit of what had once been the most exciting big-city daily in the country.

Low morale in the newsroom probably resulted from a sense that everything that made the paper special was being whittled away in a never-ending series of cost-cutting maneuvers. Newsroom talent was being reduced by buyouts—payoffs to staff members willing to quit—that sometimes resulted in losing reporters and editors of great experience, great skill, and great knowledge not easy to replace. There had been two series of buyouts while Kindred wrote, and there have been others since. Still, the staff is large by most standards and retains some very fine reporters indeed, some of whom publish admirable investigative work from time to time.

Besides the human shrinkage, there has been the customary shrinkage of the paper’s physical size to cut newsprint costs, followed by the usual shrinkage in news coverage to cut editorial costs, then a shriveling in the quality of reporting and editing because of the buyouts. Book World, the Post‘s Sunday book review, after scraping by for several years on what was all too obviously a starvation budget, was unceremoniously killed. Even the comic strips have been shrunk so mercilessly that it is sometimes hard to follow the plot of “Doonesbury” and “Judge Parker’” without a magnifying lens.

As for the Post‘s electronic problem, Don has long since accepted Kaiser’s assurance that its dazzling possibilities are not science fiction and has poured millions into journalism’s equivalent of the Manhattan Project: a quest for the secret of how to create an authentic and profitable newspaper without using paper, ink, or a printing press. At present the prospects of success seem slightly better than the likelihood of finding a pot of gold at a rainbow’s end.

In 2007 Donald Graham announced that the Washington Post Company would thereafter be called an “education and media company.” This was meant to give proper notice that its education company, Kaplan Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Post Company, then accounted for 50 percent of the company’s revenue, while its newspaper division, the Post, accounted for only 21 percent. This summer the Post Company sold Newsweek, once one of its proudest holdings, for one dollar to a buyer willing to cover its $30 million debt.

The Post Company purchased Kaplan in 1984. It was founded in 1938 by Stanley H. Kaplan, a nineteen-year-old who saw an obvious public need and moved to satisfy it. Operating in his father’s basement in Brooklyn, he began to tutor students for the New York State Regents Examination. The company is now a colossus of the booming education industry with operations in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and Israel. Unlike its shrinking little associate, The Washington Post, it has found nothing but money in the electronic revolution, having acquired a healthy share of the booming online university business. In the second quarter of 2010 Kaplan’s contribution to Post Company revenue was 62 percent.

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