Katharine Graham [1917-2001] transformed herself from a shy woman of privilege into one of America’s most powerful publishers by calling on her inner strength and steely resolve.

The former publisher of the Washington Post and chief executive and chairman of The Washington Post Co. was a blend of gutsy leadership, journalistic integrity and caring. The combination proved crucial in turning the Post from a media also-ran into one of the nation’s most powerful and must-read dailies.

She faced problems with calm and courage. “She found she could seize the moment and rise to the challenge, and she did,” Jack Valenti said in a 2001 interview. Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, was a longtime Graham friend.

KATHARINE GRAHAMValenti says he first encountered her steely character when he served as a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and Graham was the Post’s publisher. A sometimes-angry LBJ would storm into his White House office telling Valenti to get Graham on the phone to protest a story from that morning’s Post. 

“Well, she always received it graciously, but she never backed off,” Valenti said. “LBJ said to me one time, ‘By God, she doesn’t cut and run for the people that work for her!’ LBJ understood that, even though he used to get purple with rage over some of the stories. She was extraordinary.”

Graham knew how important good communication is and worked continually to keep the lines open. To keep from being blindsided by a story, for example, Graham created the “no surprise” rule with Post managing editor Ben Bradlee. “I didn’t want to read anything in the paper of great importance or that represented an abrupt change which we hadn’t discussed; that I wanted to be in on the takeoffs as well as the landings,” Graham wrote in her memoir, Personal History, for which she won a 1998 Pulitzer Prize. “I expected to have a ‘constant conversation’ in which we would each know what the other was thinking.”

KATHARINE GRAHAM - 02She didn’t shy from making tough decisions. When the Post got hold of then-Defence Secretary Robert McNamara’s classified 47-volume history of U.S. involvement in Indochina – the Pentagon Papers – Graham was the pivotal decision maker. She was under tremendous pressure not to publish. The New York Times, which had already published its first installments of the papers, was under court injunction to stop further publication. Then there was the issue of the Post Co.’s upcoming public stock offering. The company would now be financially vulnerable.

“Frightened and tense, I took a big gulp and said, ‘Go ahead, go ahead, go ahead. Let’s go. Let’s publish,’” Graham wrote.

It was a momentous journalistic decision and, according to Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life, reflected the new level of self-confidence Graham’s leadership had helped usher in.

KATHARINE GRAHAM - 03Shortly thereafter, the case was decided in favor of the Post and the New York Times by a 6-3 Supreme Court decision.

“The material in the Pentagon Papers was just the kind of information the public needed in order to form its opinions and make its choices more wisely,” Graham wrote.

As committed as she was to the public’s right to know, Graham was keenly aware of the need for balance. During the heat of the paper’s coverage to expose the Watergate cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic Headquarters, Graham demanded her staff’s coverage be fair and even-keeled.

Rick Smith, chairman and editor in chief of Newsweek, says Graham constantly asked tough questions: Did they get it right? Were they fair? How could they have done it better?

“Those simple questions – repeated over and over, whether there was any public outcry or not – might seem quaintly old-fashioned in an age of spin,” Smith wrote in the Post. “But it was precisely that kind of integrity, that restlessness to do things better, to try to ‘get it right,’ that made Kay a beacon to all who cared about the values of our craft.”

KATHARINE GRAHAM - 00000That approach earned the Post a Pulitzer Prize and helped bring about the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Graham’s operating principle was that good journalism is good business. “We operated under the philosophy – which I have espoused and practiced from the time I took over the company – that journalistic excellence and profitability go hand in hand.”

“She had a resolve and a persistence, I guess the word is fiduciary, not in a financial sense but in the sense that she had a responsibility with this newspaper,” Valenti said.

Graham absorbed that attitude from her father, Eugene Meyer. He’d made a fortune on Wall Street and bought a bankrupt Washington Post in 1933 after offering a bid of $825,000 at a public auction. With a circulation of 50,000, the paper was losing $1 million a year. Meyer was sure he could meet the challenge.

His daughter believed she could, too. At the University of Chicago, where she’d earn a bachelor’s degree in American history that meant enrolling in Mortimer Adler’s legendary “Great Books” course. In these seminars, Graham learned how to verbally thrust and parry.

“The methods they used often taught you most about standing up, about challenging them and fundamentally pleasing (the teachers) by doing it with gusto and verve, so that they were amused,” Graham wrote.

cn_image.size.washington-postAfter a move back to Washington, D.C., she got a job editing the Post’s letters to the editor section. She married Phil Graham. Her father soon enjoined Phil to become the Post’s publisher, a job he took in 1946.

But the death of her father and suicide of her husband forced Graham into new paths. The shy young woman suddenly found herself the new president of The Washington Post Co. in 1963.

Graham decided on a learn-by-doing approach to understand how the Post, Newsweek and the Post Co.’s television stations all worked. She asked everyone questions. She called in reporters and talked to them about their stories to learn about the issues and her workers. She let her team know she was behind them – flying to New York City every Monday and Tuesday to personally attend Newsweek’s editorial meeting and cover story conferences.

Despite the challenge – “I am quacking in my boots a little,” she wrote a friend – Graham faced down her fears.  She pushed herself to keep moving and position the Post for new heights.

“I had come to realize that I could only do the job in whatever way I could do it,” Graham said. “I couldn’t try to be someone else.”

That realization proved to be the key to the paper’s and her own future success. 

Source: “BUSINESS LEADERS & SUCCESS – 55 TOP BUSINESS LEADERS & HOW THEY ACHIEVED GREATNESS” (With an introduction from William J. O’Neil, founder of INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY), New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, pages 19-22. 

Jakarta, 2 June 2014 

Frans Indrapradja

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