For the first edition of In the Lead in 2018, we sat down with Katharine Weymouth, former publisher and CEO of The Washington Post. She oversaw the paper from 2008 – 2014. She is the granddaughter of Katharine Graham.
Katharine Graham became the first woman to lead the Washington Post in 1963. Her tenure included the coverage of The Pentagon Papers and Watergate. She was a founding member of IWF Washington, D.C. and was inducted into the IWF Hall of Fame in 1991. Her life is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 2017 motion picture The Post.
First through her autobiography, A Personal History, and now through Meryl Streep’s portrayal in The Post, generations have learned the story of Katharine Graham the publisher. You, however, know her on a personal level–as your grandmother. What was it like having a grandmother – and a family – play such an important role in current affairs?
That is a hard question to answer – mostly because I really never knew anything different. I was raised in a matriarchy – a family of strong women with a strong work ethic and a passion for journalism. The whole family was deeply engaged in the world around us. My mother used to quiz my sister and I at the dinner table over current affairs. My sister and I were aware that our grandmother was well known – for her courage in facing the Pentagon papers, Watergate and the pressman’s strike – as well as for her business skills as she led and grew the company and developed confidence in her abilities. But we also just knew her as Grandma. Grandma loved surrounding herself with interesting people in all different lines of work – from ambassadors to Supreme Court justices, to young journalists at The Post and elsewhere. She was very conscious of her responsibility as Publisher of The Post to publish the news with fairness and accuracy. And she had lived through events that proved the value of a press holding the powerful accountable and shedding light in dark corners.
Graham and Washington Post Editor Ben Brandlee celebrate Court permitting publication of the Pentagon Papers
The Post is not the first feature film to tell the story of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal. The 1976 film All the Presidents Men also told this story but largely omitted Mrs. Graham’s role. Do you believe your grandmother would be pleased with The Post and its depiction of her?
My grandmother would have been so surprised and honored that anyone wanted to do a movie about her – not to mention a movie directed by Steven Spielberg with Meryl Streep playing her. Meryl Streep does such a beautiful job capturing both her grace and her initial self-doubt as she was cast in this role – as well as her strength and courage as she grew into her role as publisher.
Overnight, Mrs. Graham became the publisher of the Washington post in a time of personal tragedy. In so doing, she made history as the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. She was often the only woman at the table or in the room as important decisions that shaped history were being made. She was also your grandmother. Is there any advice she gave you or a strong memory you’d like to share of your time with her?
What I learned from my grandmother, I learned from watching her example. She grew up very wealthy and yet never felt entitled. She never had to work a day in her life and yet she felt so incredibly lucky to be in a role where she loved what she did and where the enterprise she was part of mattered. She worked hard. She used to have the first edition of the paper for the next day delivered to her door at 10 pm so that she could get a head start reading it. She surrounded herself with interesting people of all ages and backgrounds. She was curious and she loved to learn. She was a loyal friend and loved to have a good laugh and see a good movie.
In its 140 years of print, you and your grandmother are the only two women to have led The Washington Post. Like your grandmother who presided over The Post in the ‘70s, you were at the helm during a perhaps equally tumultuous period of our history. How were the challenges you faced similar to those she faced and how were they different?
It was my privilege to lead The Washington Post and to follow in her and in my uncle’s footsteps. The challenges she faced were existential – literally whether the paper would survive a series of major challenges – from the pressman strike, to going public, to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. The decisions she made were incredibly courageous and ensured not only that the paper would survive and thrive for years to come but also put The Post on the map as a serious national and international newspaper.
The challenges I faced later were also to some degree existential, but in a wholly different way. When my grandmother ran the newspaper, it was an excellent business. Advertisers who needed to reach readers and policy makers in Washington needed to buy ads in The Post. It was a classic Buffett business – a business with a strong moat and high barriers to entry with deep engagement from its audience. By the time I became Publisher in 2008, newspapers were in crisis – the business had very much been disrupted and with the web, there was almost no barrier to entry. Advertisers could use Facebook and Google to reach targeted audiences much more cheaply. At the same time, readers’ attention span shortened. There were suddenly many more options of where you could get your news – whether in 140 characters or in “listicles.” The question I faced was really how to ensure that The Post continued to publish excellent journalism while also ensuring that we were a sustainable business.
In many ways, times have reverted back to when my great-grandfather, Eugene Meyer, bought the newspaper as a private businessman who cared about the mission but also could afford to invest in the paper and lose money for years to come. The mission is as important as ever – but making enough money to support a robust newsroom while also maintaining profitability for shareholders remains challenging for newspaper companies everywhere.
Social media and the internet have created a rise in citizen journalists. Media companies and newspaper publishers no longer have the control or discretion to decide what’s printed or broadcast. Do you view this as a positive or a negative change for the industry? How do you think your grandmother would react to these changes in journalism?
I think my grandmother would have been both amazed and excited by all the changes that have occurred in the media landscape. Overall, I think it is a positive that a handful of newspapers and media outlets no longer control the message. People anywhere can express their views – whether to express an opinion or to organize a protest. People without access to newspapers can get information from the web. The challenge is ensuring that people are able to filter factual reports and reasoned opinion from propaganda and vitriol. We have always been a divided country in many ways, but when people are getting their facts only from inflammatory websites with bad or partial information, that just is not good for any society.
Over the past year, the term “fake news” has become common vernacular and a frequent criticism of international and national media. It has become increasingly difficult for the consumer to determine fact from fiction and it often seems as if journalists and the truth are constantly under attack. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
Having politicians vilify the press is hardly new. Jefferson once wrote: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” But it is certainly true that today more than ever, it seems, the public is increasingly distrustful of the so called “mainstream media.” I think we can all agree that a democracy functions best when people are being given the facts as they are and allowed to then make up their own mind as to what should be done.
There was immense pressure on your grandmother and her staff during much of her tenure. The necessity of presenting the truth and the risk of presenting something inaccurate was high. In an instantaneous world with a 24-hour news cycle, some journalists today don’t proceed with as much caution. There are multiple instances, solely in the past few months, of high profile stories falling apart under scrutiny. What has caused this?
Certainly in a world of 24/7 news and fierce competition, there is pressure to get the story out and get it first. But I am confident that serious media organizations take the same care with stories today that they always have. Of course mistakes are made, but any serious media entity cares more about getting the story right than getting it out there first, and they rely on the same standards they always have: multiple sources, good editors and serious reporting rather than a reliance on rumor.
1. Norman Jean Roy, CPi Syndication
2. Associated Press, Estate of Katharine Graham
3. Personal photo of Katharine Weymouth
4. Mark Roth, The New York Times
5. Mark Godfrey, Estate of Katharine Graham
Banner Photo – Diana Walker, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution