- 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
Yes. You once said: “The older I get the more finely tuned my sense of conflict of interest seems to become. I don’t think executive editors in charge of news should have anything to do with editorials. I don’t think editors should be officers of the company. I don’t think editors should join in any civic groups, clubs, institutions. I truly believe that people on the business side of newspapers shouldn’t either.” Do you still believe that?
Yes. Well, Howard and I spent a lot of time trying to get Katharine off all outside boards. We got her out of one country club that she never should have been in in the first place. We’ve tried to get her off the board of directors of Allied Chemical, which her father founded. And we got her ready to go, and just as soon as we did, they discovered Kepone in the James River—Allied makes Kepone—so she felt she couldn’t get off.
The New York Herald-Tribune used to run a Fresh-Air Fund, the Times runs the Neediest Cases. Do you think that’s a proper role for a newspaper within its community?
Well, I’d be happier if the Times or any newspaper just wrote out a check instead.
Yet you’ve got a columnist at the Post who kind of does that.
Yes, and he and his predecessors have raised an awful lot of money for children’s hospitals. So obviously, we’ve thought about that.
What I’m really trying to figure out is: What’s the newspaper’s role in the community besides being a purveyor of news and opinion and analysis and entertainment and information?
Not a helluva lot more. You’re talking like a publisher now, and I’m not very comfortable as a publisher. I think the editor’s role in terms of the community is hands off. But I think the company has a role as a good citizen. It should contribute to good causes.
Cash, but not space?
Well, you do give an enormous amount of space to civic institutions. And space equals cash, whether it’s a story about a baseball team, football team, or a city hall. I suspect that a monopoly newspaper in a major city can’t write a bleeder without raising a couple thousand dollars for the bleedee. Back in my days as a kid reporter here, when you wrote one of those stories at Thanksgiving or Christmas you’d get five or six hundred dollars in checks in the mail.
But you shouldn’t be espousing causes?
No, you shouldn’t be a booster. Let the editorial page espouse all the causes.
What about efforts on behalf of things that go to the very lifeblood of the institution, for instance the First Amendment?
Well, same thing. I’ve never testified before a committee of Congress. I don’t see me going up there and asking those guys for anything. I believe we’ve got all the protection we need in the Constitution, and I don’t want to go up there and ask some guy for shield laws or anything. Because if they give it to you, they can take it away. I’ve been asked three or four times to testify publicly and have said no. I’ve been asked three or four times to come up and give my views privately, and I think that’s even worse.
Yet you’ll give your views privately at a cocktail party or a dinner party.
I’m giving my views publicly right here.
What’s the distinction?
One is government and the other isn’t.
The private one is the real government, though—the government you move in. It’s dinner at Buchwald’s house. Or it’s lunch with Edward Bennett Williams.
Is that the real government? Come on!
That’s the government that gets things done.
We talk about the Redskins and we talk about girls.
That’s the real government.
I think you’re belittling my motive, which is to stay far away from the rulers. And I think there’s virtue in that.
From the elected rulers?
Yeah. Don’t ask them for favors, don’t take favors.
Don’t give favors and don’t take favors?
Actually, the sin that is generally perpetrated by newspapers is that they go too far in the direction of not giving their friends an even break. We err ridiculously. I mean, we don’t cover drunk arrests normally. Unless they’re friends of the editors or friends of the publishers or relatives of either one.
Or divorces. I mean, that’s a whole other thing. That whole personal life. My living arrangements were a major topic for years, and other editors’ living arrangements weren’t.
Does that bother you?
But you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Right, so I took it. I guess it’s permitted to note the different standard. I just don’t understand it.