History of Newspapers: The Washington Post Part 1

About the history of the United States newspaper The Washington Post, information about the paper and some of their scoops.


The Past. The Washington Post was on its last legs in 1933 when Eugene Meyer, an immigrant's son who had made a fortune in banking, bought it for $875,000. Though he poured over $6 million into it, the Post remained 2nd-rate and continued losing money. In 1948, Meyer turned the paper over to his son-in-law, Philip Graham. Graham was interested in profits. He bought radio and television stations, Newsweek magazine, and the Washington Times-Herald--and he kept a tight rein on spending. (One reporter remembers asking the city editor for $5 for taxi fare to cover a story under the Graham regime. He was refused on the grounds of economy and had to borrow the city editor's car. Such economies, of course, do not contribute to high-quality journalism.)

In 1963, Graham shot himself, and his widow, Katharine Graham, took over The Washington Post. Mrs. Graham, a tall, good-looking woman, was a reporter in San Francisco before her marriage and had worked on the editorial staff of the Post. She set out to make the Post a good newspaper. Almost immediately, she hired Ben Bradlee, a highly experienced newspaperman, as executive editor and gave him carte blanche to do whatever he had to do to improve the paper. Bradlee--gruff, witty, and shrewd--hired great reporters away from other papers by paying higher salaries and using strong persuasion. For instance, he called B. H. Bagdikian, a free-lance writer who had called the Post the "most irritating paper in the country," and said "Okay, you've been saying what's wrong with the Post, why don't you do something about it?" Unable to resist the challenge, Bagdikian joined the staff as national editor. Bradlee also hired Pulitzer Prize winners Eugene C. Patterson and Philip L. Geyelin. The latter was State Dept. correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. And the Post was on its way to becoming one of the top newspapers in the U.S.

Under Meyer, the Post was politically conservative. In 1938, Sen. Sherman Minton complained that 90% of the press was deliberately slanting the news to destroy the New Deal, and he named the Post as one of the offenders. However, the paper later became more liberal, supporting Adlai Stevenson for President in 1952 and criticizing Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the rabid anticommunist whose witch-hunts brought Senate censure.

The Post has fearlessly attacked presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat alike. President Eisenhower would read only the sports pages. As Vice-President, Richard Nixon would not subscribe to the Post because of Herblock's unflattering cartoons. President Lyndon Johnson, who did read the paper, would, through Bill Moyers, his press secretary, call Bradlee late at night to complain in colorful language about items in the Post. When Agnew was nominated for Vice-President, the Post compared it with the appointment by Roman Emperor Caligula of his horse as proconsul. (One of Agnew's associates said this was "the lowest blow he had ever received in politics.") When Haynsworth and Carswell were nominated for the Supreme Court, the Post came out strongly against the nominations. Many think the Post was partially responsible for the fact that those nominations were defeated. (A Herblock cartoon showed Judge Carswell coming up out of a garbage can.)

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