Washington Babylon — July 4, 2008, 9:23 am

The Washington Post, After Watergate

From Alexander Cockburn:

My dry-eyed remarks about Tim Russert here last week elicited a large number of enthusiastic letters from CounterPunchers astounded at the commotion at his passing. In a separate piece I did on Russert I concluded thus:

After the Watergate scandal was over in 1974 and Nixon bundled off in disgrace to California, Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company and employer of Woodward and Bernstein, cautioned journalists: ““The press these days,” she sternly told them, “should … be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” Out of that warning came the failures to see conspiracy where it did exist, in the manufacture of the WMD threat and in the treatment of politics as business-as-usual, somewhat like a game — an approach in which Russert excelled and which made him many friends and far too few enemies. He never had to lunch alone. In the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer hung a sign in the newsroom of his paper, the New York World, which read: “The World has no friends.” Russert, as the recent obsequies attest, had far too many.

A few days later, on June 25th, came this amusing sequel from Chicago-based CounterPuncher, John Mauck:

Hey Alexander, Today on the Washington Post website, they had an online discussion with Len Downey [The Post’s dreary editor]. Per your column I asked a simple question:

Chicago: Hey Len, What is your opinion of Katharine Graham’s quote: “The press these days should be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about over-involvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.”

To this I got an amusing answer: Leonard Downie Jr.: It’s timeless wisdom. She said that many years ago, and it was true then and it’s true now. We keep that responsibility in mind every day.”

The Washington Post has some of the best reporters anywhere and it regularly publishes great work, but the sentiment from the top against “over involvement” — otherwise known as aggressive reporting about the powers-that-be — can make for very dull journalism. And too often the Post sees itself as the torchbearer of conventional wisdom and, on the flip side, the gatekeeper against unconventional opinion. (See, for example, Howard Kurtz and David Broder.)

You would never entirely trust Detroit newspapers to honestly cover the automobile industry nor Pittsburgh newspapers, during the city’s steel boom, to aggressively cover the steel industry. Likewise, in the one-industry town of Washington, the Post often can’t be counted on to cover government. Institutionally, the newspaper is too close to and dependent on government officials, lobbyists and other powerful people.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Amount that Egypt owes the United States in unpaid parking tickets:

$1,700,000

Studies of humankind’s original states—in China, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Peru—suggest that the emergence of bureaucracy catalyzed predatory imperial expansion.

An Egyptian court sentenced former president Mohamed Morsi and 106 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for killing and kidnapping police; conspiring with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah; participating in a 20,000-man jailbreak; and stealing chickens.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today