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 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2015

The Joke

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Abolish High School

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beat Reporter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going It Alone

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rotten Ice

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Life After Guantánamo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
Photograph by the author
Article
Rotten Ice·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, ‘Imaqa.’ Maybe.”
Photograph © Kari Medig
Article
Life After Guantánamo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’ve seen the hell and I’m still in the beginning of my life.”
Illustration by Caroline Gamon
Article
Going It Alone·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The call to solitude is universal. It requires no cloister walls and no administrative bureaucracy, only the commitment to sit down and still ourselves to our particular aloneness.”
Photograph by Richard Misrach
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

Acreage of a Christian nudist colony under development in Florida:

240

Florida’s wildlife officials decided to remove the manatee, which has a mild taste that readily adapts to recipes for beef, from the state’s endangered-species list.

A 64-year-old mother and her 44-year-old son were arrested for running a gang that stole more than $100,000 worth of toothbrushes from Publix, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS stores in Florida.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today