National Opinions

Katharine Graham's legacy: Fearlessness

Katharine Graham poses in her office at The Washington Post in 1964.
Katharine Graham poses in her office at The Washington Post in 1964. Associated Press

Katharine Graham, the iconic former publisher of The Washington Post, was born 100 years ago Friday. We remember her on this centennial not only for her deep and lasting contributions to The Post, but also for her unwavering commitment to the journalistic values that continue to guide news organizations across the country.

Mrs. Graham’s role as the first lady of American journalism was never preordained, but today, nearly 16 years after her death, her legacy is inseparable from The Post, just as The Post will forever be linked to Mrs. Graham. Her rise to lead the newspaper and the greater Washington Post Co. was a formative part of the company’s history; that history in turn serves as a source of strength as the news organization charts its course through new and challenging times.

While not directly involved in the day-to-day management of the company until 1963, Mrs. Graham had a front-row seat to newspapering through her father, Eugene Meyer, who bought The Post at a bankruptcy auction in 1933, and her husband, Philip L. Graham, whom she succeeded as publisher after his death. In those days, The Post was an underdog. Through grit and determination, and through strong management and a competitive mind-set, the Grahams turned it into the preeminent newspaper in the nation’s capital and one of the most respected newspapers in the country.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Personal History,” Mrs. Graham recalled how years of inaction from the Washington Star — the region’s “self-satisfied and complacent” market leader — ultimately led to its downfall, even after heroic efforts to save it. I can’t help but imagine that memory running in the back of her mind when The Post took its first steps into the digital era with the launch in 1995 of Digital Ink, a predecessor to washingtonpost.com.

Mrs. Graham was determined never to let The Washington Post fail. She instilled that deeply held principle in her son Donald E. Graham and her granddaughter Katharine Weymouth — the chairman and publisher, respectively, who made the difficult decision in 2013 to sell The Post to an owner who shared their passion for the mission that Mrs. Graham held dear. Today, she would be proud to know, The Washington Post is thriving.

In her first decade as publisher, working with Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, Mrs. Graham faced some of the most severe threats to an independent press in U.S. history. In 1971, she had the courage to publish the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the Vietnam War. She made that decision even though The Post Co. was going public the same week, and despite threats to its licenses to operate television stations.

She continued to face the specter of retaliation by the Nixon administration — including one now-famous threat involving “a big fat wringer” — as The Post published Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the 1972 Watergate break-in and its ultimate ties to the White House.

While the challenges we face today are different from those Mrs. Graham encountered decades ago, the values that guide our decision- making remain the same. The media landscape is changing more rapidly than ever, and many newsrooms around the country are struggling to fund their operations. The rise and weaponization of fake news by those who wish to advance agendas at odds with the facts are among the latest threats facing our industry and society.

We hold on to Mrs. Graham’s courage of her convictions as we continue pursuing the kind of accountability journalism for which The Post has long been known. Real journalism — the kind Mrs. Graham worked so hard to protect — is more important than ever. Readers understand that when they see reporting from The Washington Post, they are seeing “the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained,” to steal a line from Mrs. Graham’s father.

Just as she was a publisher of the news, Mrs. Graham was a subject of the news. She took setbacks along with success and never let them derail her, or The Post. She was a shrewd business executive in an industry where few women of her generation were able to rise to her rank. And her love for The Post was abundantly returned by the organization she so cherished.

But what we will remember most about Mrs. Graham is that she was fearless. In times like these, that might be her most important lesson of all.

Frederick J. Ryan Jr. is publisher and chief executive of The Washington Post.

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