Katharine Graham and History: Slanting the First Draft
Some time before he committed suicide 38 years ago, leaving the Washington Post Co. in the hands of his widow Katharine, publisher Philip Graham described journalism as "the first draft of history."
Katharine Graham's death prompted a flood of media accolades in mid-July. But history -- no matter how early the draft -- should not be distorted by easy adulation of the powerful.
A few hours after she passed away, typical coverage aired on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." The PBS program featured a roundtable discussion "to help us assess the life and impact of Katharine Graham." One of the guests was historian Michael Beschloss, who often appears on major TV networks.
Beschloss summed up the historic role of Katharine Graham. "She always spoke truth to power," he said. The assertion was absurd. Naturally, it went unchallenged by the other two panelists, both longtime high-ranking employees of the Washington Post Co.
After decades in the Post newsroom as a national-security reporter, Walter Pincus was on hand to comment about Mrs. Graham. "She had an instinct for honesty and what's right," he told viewers, "and the book is the first time that became public."
"The book" -- her acclaimed autobiography "Personal History" -- received enormous media praise and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Graham's death set off a new explosion of tributes to her bestseller.
On NPR's "Morning Edition," the editor of The New Yorker magazine opted for hyperbole. "She wrote one of the great autobiographies," David Remnick said. The day before, he had been on the same network, lauding the same book as "incredibly genuine and generous and real."
"Personal History" is true to the first word of the title. The book does an excellent job of chronicling an individual's struggle to rebound from tragedy and overcome sexist barriers. Yet the book is a heavy volume of historic narcissism -- a magnum opus of upper-class vainglory and scrupulous evasion.
Prior to her admirable support for the Post's breakthrough reporting on Watergate nearly 30 years ago, Graham was a key player in the June 1971 battle over the Pentagon Papers. But such journalistic fortitude came late in the Vietnam War. During most of the bloodshed, the Post gave consistent editorial boosts to the war and routinely regurgitated propaganda in the guise of objective reporting. Graham's book never comes close to acknowledging that her newspaper mainly functioned as a helpmate to the war-makers in the White House, State Department and Pentagon.
Though she was president of the Washington Post Co. by then, "Personal History" makes no mention of the pivotal Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964. Like other daily papers, the Post dutifully reported the U.S. government's lies as facts. Within days, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, opening the door to massive escalation of the war.
Three years ago, I interviewed Murrey Marder, the reporter who wrote much of the Washington Post's coverage of the Tonkin Gulf events. He recalled that the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese navy had been shelling North Vietnamese coastal islands just prior to the supposed "attacks" by North Vietnam on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. But the fix was in: "Before I could do anything as a reporter, the Washington Post had endorsed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution."
Asked whether the Post ever retracted its Tonkin Gulf reporting, Marder replied: "I can assure you that there was never any retraction." He added: "If you were making a retraction, you'd have to make a retraction of virtually everyone's entire coverage of the Vietnam War."
Graham's 625-page book offers no hint of introspection about the human costs of her wartime discretion. In August 1966, she huddled with a writer in line to take charge of the editorial page. "We agreed," she wrote, "that the Post ought to work its way out of the very supportive editorial position it had taken, but that we couldn't be precipitous; we had to move away gradually from where we had been." Terrible years of further carnage resulted from such unwillingness to "be precipitous."
While devoting many pages to her warm friendships with top U.S. government officials and business tycoons, the book expresses no concern that the Post has been serving the political and economic agendas of corporate elites. The autobiography has little use for people beyond Graham's dazzling peers. Even activists who made history are mere walk-ons. In her book, the name of Martin Luther King Jr. was not worth mentioning.
For a book so widely touted as a feminist parable, "Personal History" is notably bereft of solidarity for women without affluence or white skin. They barely seem to exist in the great media executive's range of vision.
If Katharine Graham "always spoke truth to power," then journalism and history are lost in a murky twilight zone.
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