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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
What are the good papers?
Don’t ask me that. The good papers that I read include the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal , the Washington Post. Those are the ones that I read regularly. The Los Angeles Times is a good paper. The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune are pretty good papers nowadays. I think the Dallas papers are getting better. I think there are a lot of overrated papers, but I just don’t want to get into it.
I’ve got enough trouble.
Are there papers you wouldn’t hire anybody off of?
I doubt that that would be an iron rule. But there are papers whose editor’s letters of recommendation would not mean much.
You were talking about liveliness. How about the so-called hard news versus soft news. You’re a hardsnews man.
Well, sure, I’m interested in hard news, but I spent twelve years on a weekly newsmagazine, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of soft news. In fact, if you asked me what’s the difference between the Washington Post today and the Washington Post in August of ‘65,1 would say that the Post today is much more a daily newsmagazine than it was. And I think that if I were editor of a weekly newsmagazine now, that would worry me. I think that most good, important newspapers are as big as Mount Olympus and they are publishing good sports sections, good cultural sections, good amusements sections. They have more medical writers than the newsmagazines do. And every single day they come out with one of those big papers. And I promise you, go back twenty-five or thirty years and you’ll be stunned by the change.
Do you give readers too much?
No, you were talking about hard news versus soft news. I don’t think we’re ducking either. But we do have more feature and analysis stories on page one now than we ever used to. It used to be the analysis all waited for Sunday in the “Outlook” section. That’s not true now.
What’s the difference between analysis and opinion?
Well, in analysis you’re supposed to be showing all sides of a subject, and in opinion you’re coming down on one side. We try to keep opinion out.
Do you succeed?
Most of the time. Most of the time it’s easy to get it out. I mean, any good rewrite man knows if you load a story up with “despites” and “even thoughs” and “alleges” you can spot what the guy’s got in his mind. You can take it out, generally with just a pencil. Where the opinion of a paper shows up in the news columns is in the selection of stories. That’s a fact. And I don’t think it’s reporters writing something like, “In a grotesque action yesterday, the mayor,” et cetera. You don’t see that in a paper today. But if the mayor’s hands are in the cookie jar, you can either make it an eight-column banner or put it back in the truss ads. You can make your point that way.
But you were saying that with their education and experience, editors are quite qualified to make those points. That they are paid to do so.
To make judgments about what’s important and what isn’t, yes.
Do you do that at the Post? Or are you above that?
It’s the fun part of the job.
Editors have got to know a little bit about a whole lot of things. And you’ve got to know when you’re over your head.
But do you do it? Do you go to the news conference every day?
I sure as hell do, twice a day.
Do you run it?
No, Howard runs it.
Do you overrule, second-guess?
I don’t publicly. But I wouldn’t let the managing editor go through a minefield without pointing out where I thought the mines were. We’ve been together for a long time, so it never comes to that. I mean, if I thought Howard was doing something wrong, rather than say, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever saw,” I would wait and then go in his office and say it. But that doesn’t happen. Plus the fact that other editors here now, the people who are left in charge, are just as qualified as either one of us, and they can and do change the paper as the news changes during the night.
Are they all cut in your mold?
Totally different. In the Agnew days, people said we were all Eastern establishment. And yet we had Simons, who’s Jewish, from Union College in Albany; Bradlee, a WASP from Harvard and Boston; Harwood, a hillbilly from Vanderbilt and Tennessee or wherever the hell he came from. It’s a very big, wide spectrum. A lot of Florida people for some goddamn reason, now. The University of Florida, and a St. Petersburg crowd. That’s been a good recruiting ground for us. And all of a sudden we do have a lot of young kids from Harvard. And a lot of women.