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[Washington Babylon]

The Washington Post, After Watergate

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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.

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