- Historic Sites
“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
Sure. The overwhelming majority of the information in the newspapers is not susceptible to any kind of misunderstanding. Baseball scores, weather, crossword puzzles, comics, Buchwald, you know. The issue is not even joined over more than a small percentage of the paper. That’s why I think they believe.
How powerful are you?
I don’t know. Goddamn it. Everybody tells me that I’m powerful. But I can’t get the trash collected. I mean, if I try to exert any real power around here the way it is exerted by “powerful” people in America, I’d be laughed out of town. Let me try to fix a parking ticket the way you do.
I don’t fix parking tickets.
Well, there aren’t many editors in America who pay parking tickets. And I do, because I’m so scared of getting caught if I don’t.
Once more, how powerful are you?
The power of the Washington Post lies mostly in its ability to focus national attention on certain subjects. If the editors of the Post think something’s important, they can wheel up their f irepower to concentrate on that subject, and therefore that subject is apt to be taken seriously by a significant portion of the country.
Including those who can do something about it?
Yes. Our readers are not typical. They have better resumes than most newspaper readers. The assignment editors of the network news operations read us and respond. So do the bureau chiefs of other newspapers and of the newsmagazines. I mean, I once ran a newsmagazine bureau in this town, and I know damn well how important the Washington Post is.
Well, if you’ve got five hundred people doing something every day, you can cover a helluva lot more ground than twenty people covering it once a week. Setting the agenda is the old cliché.
Do you think about that when you launch something?
No, not a damn bit. Not for five seconds. And I didn’t during Watergate. We just kept everybody at it. Most of you editors from out in the boondocks thought we were out of our goddamn mind.
So you can set the agenda?
We can help set the agenda.
But who sets the agenda for the nation? The Washington Post and who else?
The New York Times and the television networks and Time and Newsweek.
Does that worry you at all?
No. I mean, look, we’re not unqualified. We got in this terrible argument the other day in the newsroom about “Who the hell elected you, Bradlee?” Of course, the answer in my case is that Katharine Graham elected me, and who elected her? Her old man elected her. And who elected him? Nobody. He bought the paper at an auction on the steps of a building two blocks from the White House. But we’re not unintelligent, not even unpatriotic, as our critics sometimes charge. I don’t know how to say this without blowing my horn, but I have spent more time in combat defending my country than any nonmilitary President of the United States, and that’s why when aspersions are cast upon my patriotism I get a little pissed. Also, I was in the foreign service for a couple of years. I know something about serving my country, and I care a helluva lot about it. I had a good education, a reasonably good upbringing, I’ve stayed out of jail, I’m not a drunk or a dope-taker. So we’re not unqualified. In this town, when you have to listen to an assistant secretary of defense who might have been selling cars in Omaha two years ago tell you what’s a matter of national security or what isn’t, I mean excuse me.
Then why does the public doubt the press?
Well, I think it has to do with our role as the messenger bearing bad news. Six hundred planes land safely every day at National Airport, and we don’t pay any goddamn attention to it. One misses, and we are there by the scores. We can write one story about a whole department of government working right, and people won’t pay any attention to it. We did a survey of our paper once. We got three stamps printed. One with the corners of the mouth upturned for good news. One straight for not good or bad, and one mouth downturned for bad news. And the paper was overwhelmingly filled with good news. And the bad news was restricted to almost a few pages—the obit page, for instance. And even then some bastard dies, and it’s good news to some.
Why do people trust television news more than they trust newspaper news?
Because it comes coated and in very small doses and it disappears. You can’t Xerox television, and it doesn’t hang around there talking to you. I don’t say this in any disparaging sense, because an editor who doesn’t recognize the power and the instantaneousness of television is deceiving himself. But just sit in a group—among people who aren’t news junkies—and watch the evening news. Then turn it off and turn to the first person and ask, “What did Cronkite say about that Central American country?” or ask,” What Central American country was he talking about?” and you will be stunned how little they know.