WASHINGTON — Tuesday, we lost the greatest American publisher of our time. Katharine Graham took an undistinguished newspaper and made it great. She took a small newspaper company and made it a media empire. And most of all, in an age of endless media homogenization and consolidation, she kept it independent. Among her many legacies, she leaves behind one of the few family-controlled media enterprises — meaning, in the case of the Graham family, distinctive, independent and infused with a sense of duty.
Even more important than the fact of her success was how she achieved it. She had courage. She took risks. Of course, many businesspeople take risks. But they take risks for growth and profits. Katharine Graham's greatest risks — the Pentagon Papers and Watergate — were taken for principle, putting in peril not just growth and profits but possibly the very existence of The Washington Post Co.
She was amply rewarded as the Post was propelled to prestige and financial success. But those were byproducts. They were not why she did it.
That very success left a larger footprint that makes her historical importance more than just local to Washington. Her stewardship of the Post contributed significantly to the rise of the press in the late 20th century to a true fourth estate, coequal in power to the three branches of government.
The American press was never timid before Mrs. Graham. But it is hard to deny that both its influence and self-confidence increased as a result of what she had shown one newspaper could do. With Clinton having skated so close to the edge, we forget how extraordinary it was to bring down a president. In the face of unrelenting threats, the Post led. And it prevailed.
And with it, journalism. The Post's Watergate coverage energized and bestowed unprecedented prestige upon an entire generation of investigative reporting. One might argue that today journalism often walks with too much of a swagger. But in the end, a free country can have no greater asset than an independent press. Katharine Graham will be rightly remembered for, at considerable risk, having championed that independence in an age when the forces of gigantism — everything from corporatism and groupthink to the imperial presidency and the mechanization of news — threaten to render journalism meek and bland.
Everyone who was at Mrs. Graham's 70th birthday party remembers Art Buchwald's speech.
"There's one word that brings us all together here tonight," he told a gathering of the most powerful people in Washington.
"And that word is "fear.' " The audience erupted in laughter.
The laughter was a bit self-conscious, but that self-consciousness was misplaced. After the president, Katharine Graham was arguably the most powerful person in Washington. But unlike many in a comparable position — many presidents, in fact — she deployed power not for personal reasons but for the things she believed in: good works and good journalism; the Post and its writers. Everyone in the room knew that a prepublication phone call to Mrs. Graham would be of no avail: no fear or favoritism would get in the way of principle. That is why she was so revered.
When someone wins the Pulitzer Prize, it is common to greet them with "Now you know how the first line in your obituary will read." That's only for ordinary folk. For Mrs. Graham, it hardly makes the first paragraph. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal front page news digest did not even mention it. Instead it said: "helped guard the integrity of journalism . . . in the Watergate era."
Not many people publish their first book at 79. And not many win the Pulitzer Prize for it. She won it for a finely written, searingly honest autobiography. The book represents her other legacy: her story — her transformation from helpmate to player — and her example as a pioneer woman in what had been a man's world.
This generation can only imagine what kind of disabilities and prejudices women faced in Mrs. Graham's time. Why, when she took over the Post, newspaper classifieds were routinely divided into "Help-Wanted Male" and "Help-Wanted Female."
The top ranks of publishing had no "Help-Wanted Female" section. Katharine Graham created it. Without training or psychic preparation, she took up the challenge and became, quite simply, the best. By thus opening the road to countless other women, she earned herself a place, along with Eleanor Roosevelt and perhaps one or two others, as one of the most influential American women of the 20th century.
Those who knew her will miss her friendship. But we will long feel, as will the country, her presence and her example.
Washington Post Writers Group