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“the First Rough Draft Of History”
… is today’s newspaper. Here the executive editor of the Washington ‘Post’ takes us on a spirited dash through the minefields that await reporters and editors who gather and disseminate a most valuable commodity.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
I think I’ve helped build an institution, a newspaper that you’ve got to read if you want to understand what’s going on in Washington and maybe even if you want to understand what’s going on in the country and the world. I’m not saying that if you do read us you will understand it, but if you want to understand it you’ve got to read it. As for my personal goal, I want to make a difference. I want the paper to make a difference. In primitive terms, you’d like to leave the world a little bit better than you found it. You hope that as a result of your work and the work of other people on the team that the people of your community are better informed, better understand the workings of government, are closer to truth, and therefore freer in the biblical sense.
So you have a mission?
Mission has other implications that I don’t like. But purpose, yes.
Do you think the purpose of the New York Times is the same as the purpose of the Post?
I think the purpose of the Times —well, let them talk about what their purpose is. I mean it’s a helluva newspaper, and it seems to me that what I describe as my goal is pretty close to their achievement.
Dick Harwood, the deputy managing editor of the Post, once said about the Post: “Our standards are subjective and whimsical. They reflect our taste, values, prejudices, opinions and conveniences.” Is that true?
Sure it’s true.
Then what are your prejudices, tastes, opinions, conveniences …?
I have certain prejudices, obviously. I go back to “hate domination.” I don’t like bullies, I don’t like liars. I’m really prejudiced against them. I don’t like people who look me in the eye and tell me a lie and therefore, through me, tell a lie to the world. On the other hand, I’m sort of attracted to rogues. They interest me more than stuffed shirts. I like the Washington Redskins. I don’t like phonies. I love the outdoors.
Is all of this reflected in the Post?
Well, in some ways. Any editor knows how accidental and arbitrary some of the small decisions are. At the Post, Howard Simons is our managing editor. He’s a science freak—science stories interest him and appeal to him. And since many of the day-to-day decisions of how the newspaper plays a story are his, it seems to me that stories about the ozone layer and the latest discovery of Dr. Leakey get played more prominently than if I were doing it. About the ozone layer: I can’t be convinced that when somebody sprays a deodorant in the bathroom of the second story of a hotel, the ozone layer is going to disappear. But he knows more about that than I do. I love stories about low doings in high places. I always have. As a kid I remember being thrown downstairs by the chief of police of Manchester, New Hampshire, and I’ve always been interested in cops and police stories. I love trial stories.
Yet you once said you’re kind of above ideology.
I am. I’m not political at all.
You have no ideological interest in politics? You’ve got a mechanical interest in politics but not an ideological interest in politics?
That’s right. Katharine Graham said the other day, describing somebody who had no interest in politics, “He’s like you, he’s nothing.” I hope what she was trying to say was I’m not left or right or Democrat or Republican. When President Nixon was elected and came to Washington, people said that the Washington Post would go crazy, we would all go crazy. It would be boring. We’d be dulled out, we’d be frozen out. But it certainly was the six or seven most interesting years I’ve ever spent. The ideology of it doesn’t interest me at all. I mean, the only discouragement I have about Watergate, really, is that Nixon was a Republican and not a Democrat. It would have been so much easier if he’d been a Democrat, because we could’ve ducked this charge that the Post is interested in uncovering skullduggery only in the Republican party. Never mind Wayne Hays and never mind Wilbur Mills and a few other people like that.
That brings up a related subject. What should the relationship be between the person running the news department and the person running the editorial page?
In our paper it is as separate as church and state. And I believe in that strongly. I’ve never been to a meeting of the editorial board in eighteen years. And editorial writers have never been to a meeting of the news department. I’m not consulted about political endorsements. It would be much better, strictly from the selfish point of view of the news department, if the paper didn’t endorse. When we endorse a mayor, for instance, in the middle of a race here, the other candidates say to our reporters, “What the hell, you’ve already made up your minds who you’re for.” They don’t understand the subtleties, and I don’t think readers ever believe it when you talk about this separation of powers. They say, “You mean to tell me you yourself couldn’t write an editorial if you wanted to?”