COMMENTARY: ‘The Post’ a story about a woman’s courage

When her husband, Philip, took his own life in 1963, Katharine Graham admitted she was unprepared to be publisher of The Washington Post. At 46, she had worked only briefly — and never in an executive position. She did not seek the publisher’s role. She had spent her married life raising the Grahams’ four children and entertaining presidents, Cabinet members and ambassadors as Georgetown’s leading socialite.

Philip’s death was a decade before The Post achieved national prominence and won a 1973 Pulitzer in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon. In 1963, The Post was a local newspaper, on the verge of insolvency, laboring in the shadows of the New York Times.

In 1971, bankers and lawyers surrounded Graham as she worked to take her family business public and thus ensure its financial strength. Yet, a national security scandal rattled Washington and risked disrupting the Post’s smooth passage to the American Stock Exchange.

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The Times broke the story about the existence of the Pentagon Papers, a classified study cataloguing the U.S. government’s lies to the American people about the Vietnam War. The lies occurred over 22 years as the war gradually deepened. Robert McNamara had commissioned the study when he was Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary — and a central participant in Graham’s ongoing garden parties.

Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers exclusively to The Times. Katharine Graham’s editor, Ben Bradlee, scrambled his forces and eventually found Ellsberg and obtained a second copy.

The Times published only one day of stories on the Pentagon Papers before a federal judge blocked it from further editions. Bradlee was determined to publish any way, even though The Post was implicitly barred, and Graham was thrust into a titanic crisis: Publish in defiance of courts and put at risk the company’s stock offering? Or decline to publish, angering the news staff, forfeiting the newspaper’s independence and bowing before Nixon?

Steve Spielberg’s “The Post” opens in Austin with Graham portrayed by Meryl Streep. Her mentor, coach, partner and ultimately her subordinate is Bradlee (Tom Hanks).

Streep sensitively captures the transformation of Graham from insecure widow to a courageous full partner of Bradlee in standing down lawyers who predict financial disaster and imprisonment.

The U.S. Supreme Court decides in a 6-3 vote that the Times and the Post can publish the Pentagon Papers without risk of government censorship or punishment, with Justice Hugo Black writing: “In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely what the founders hoped and trusted they would do.”

I focused on the editor-publisher relationship. I worked primarily for two publishers over more than 30 years as directing editor of four newspapers.

The responsibilities of an editor and a publisher are compatible but different. An editor is driven to publish news accurately, fairly and quickly, often in defiance of authority. The publisher’s role includes that — but he or she is the CEO and must also sustain the financial strength and reputation of the newspaper.

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The most challenging case for me occurred when I was editor of The Charlotte Observer in the mid-1980s. The paper was investigating corruption by the PTL television ministry, owned by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The publisher directed me to “stop your ceaseless obsession” with PTL, and he wasn’t exaggerating – I was obsessed, and our reporting had gone on for 11 years.

At the time, PTL was counter-attacking by leading thousands of viewers to cancel their subscriptions to The Observer and other Knight Ridder newspapers. The publisher felt the paper’s reputation for fairness was at stake.

We did pause the stories — for a while. But breaking news developments brought Bakker back to our front pages. Eventually, a federal judge found Jim Bakker guilty of mail and wire fraud. The evangelist, now 77, served four years in federal prison.

In 1988, The Observer’s reporting on PTL won the Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service – the same award The Post had won 15 years earlier for Watergate. The Observer’s staff deserves the most credit. But the publisher was indispensable in demanding restraint and fairness. We did it together — at times painfully, just as Graham and Bradlee did.

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