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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
Why not? You’re a big, famous person. The Post itself chronicles the living arrangements of people.
Only if they’re running for high office. Which I’m not. And if nominated, I will not…
Would your principles be the same if you were the executive editor of a paper in Everett, Washington?
Probably not. I worked as a copy boy on a little paper in Beverly, Massachusetts, and I didn’t have many of these highfalutin ideas there. And you’re much more part of the community in a town like that. You walk down Main Street and go into every store and pick up the little notes on who was visiting with whom and who was sick and things like that. And in a quite literal sense the owner of the paper did the same thing, and he wouldn’t any more put in anything bad about any friend or …
Is that okay?
It’s just different.
That raises an allied subject. What about the chains, where the editors move up like they’re IBM executives, keep going to a bigger plant or a bigger paper? What’s your view of chains?
I don’t know. I’ve never worked for one, and I don’t read many of them. When the best newspapers in America are discussed, it doesn’t seem to me that chain papers lead all the rest. And as Al Neuharth of Gannett always says, the Washington Post is part of a chain because we happen to own that paper in Everett, Washington.
And occasionally try to buy another one.
And occasionally try to buy another one. I’d like to see a study on whether, if a paper is yea good, by some subjective standard, and is bought by Gannett, it would become yea minus two or yea plus two good. I don’t know the answer.
How about the concentration of power in chains? The fact that as of 10:30 A.M. today or whatever, Gannett owns eighty-five or eighty-six or eighty-seven newspapers, does that trouble you at all?
It does, and in an ideal world, that’s too many papers owned by one company. But the remedy for that is much worse than the disease. I think that the First Amendment all by itself would make it unconstitutional for the government to say to a newspaper proprietor that “you can or cannot own this.”
How about papers like the New York Post, the Murdoch type of journalism? What do you think of that?
I think it stinks.
It sells newspapers.
It sells newspapers. But I have confidence that that’ll wash out. As I go back over the papers that have disappeared, it’s hard to remember really good newspapers going down.
The New York Herald-Tribune?
The Herald-Tribune is certainly one and the Washington Star another.
Did the death of the Star cause major changes at the Post?
Well, the death of the Star is certainly bringing some pressures to bear. Letters that used to start out just plain, “You bastards,” now start out, “Now that you’re the only game in town, you bastards. …” The pressures that were once divided into two are now all focused on the Post .
Do you wish you weren’t the only game in town?
Sometimes. There is no question that in the abstract a community is best served if it has more than one voice. It prevents tyranny, it prevents lots of things. And therefore in the abstract you believe in two newspapers at least, and I don’t know why you should stop at two. But if you’re like me, you’re an instinctively competitive person, and you are taught from an early age that you do the very best you can today and you try to do better tomorrow. And if you really succeed in that, you’re going to get better. And probably two papers in a town aren’t both going to get better. So the logical outcome of a very competitive situation is survival by one. But I wish the Star were still around.
You feel a greater responsibility?
Yeah. And I feel that life’s going to be harder to manage. Now there are going to be great pressures put on the Washington Post not to rock the boat. Great pressures from the owners because the community will put pressures on the owners. Great pressures from the community directly to editors and to reporters. The shadow cast by this paper, which is already large, will become larger and will attract even more attention. And that will tend to make people’s sphincters tighten, and that is the danger I see, that there will be great pressures to bland the paper out.
How will you respond?
By recognizing those pressures and trying to counter them.
Earlier you said that one of the functions of a good editor is to lead interference, to keep the news people away from the bean counters.
And give them the time, the atmosphere, and the freedom to do what they should do.
So the good editor just shoulders all those pressures himself and doesn’t pass it along? But how do you deal with it?