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November 3, 2006

Washington Post Publisher Needs Spanking

Roy Meachum

Republican friends were all agog. They never thought the Washington Post would support GOP Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

The endorsement, moreover, came as a direct slap at Baltimore's Sun, which had waged a bitter battle with Mr. Ehrlich over reporters' access. In that sense the Post turned its back on journalists everywhere.

The paper's hard-earned stature as the leading press monitor of politicians went the rest of the way down the tube; the decline started when the Watergate's leading investigative journalist stayed on staff while writing two books that sugar-coated the Bush Administration.

Some people may feel Bob Woodward brought further fame to the paper and that sugar-coating was necessary to get top administration officials to share their confidences with the reporter-turned-author. Not to put a nice face on the situation, the reality made Mr. Woodward a journalistic whore and the paper's management his madam.

Indeed, it's possible to suspect that the Post's editorial support for "President Bush's war" may have also sprung from a coziness the paper's assistant managing editor wanted to retain with the White House. Maybe not by coincidence, the tone changed as Mr. Woodward's prepared his third book, which criticized the president and his closest advisors.

With much of the country in open hostility to American involvement in Iraq, the Post chimed in; with reservations, however. It opined U.S. military should stay involved as long as the hope was there for a stable Baghdad government. That makes the grand and luxurious institution on the District's New Hampshire Avenue among the last outposts that chant the outworn mantra: Mr. Bush may still be right.

The Washington Post that brought me up would never be guilty of such equivocation: my first job out of the Army was at the paper; in all I worked four times for company. The principal players at the time knew being forthright was the only way to survive the paper's many enemies. And there was a slew.

Mine was the era of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy; his followers took to calling the newsroom to demand: "Is this the Washington Daily Worker?" The reference was to the U.S. communist party's paper printed in New York. Capitol Hill crawled with McCarthy sycophants who preached anyone who deviated from the senator's brand of 100 percent Americanism must be Moscow's tool.

The capital's other media, when not openly supportive of the gentleman from Wisconsin carefully tucked their skirts away from any controversy, for the most part. The Evening Star was the epitome of journalistic respectability; the owning Noyes and Kaufman families rarely soiled their corporate hands on such mundane matters as politics. Except for Jay Carmody on the drama desk, it specialized in selecting interesting news items and grinding them down into meaningless pulp.

The Daily News was the friend to government workers on their lunch break; its tabloid size was perfect for grabbing a bite at drug store counters. It was notably a quick read. The most important stories of the day were fragmented by the Scripps-Howard paper into bite-size portions. Most of all, it carried the racing track odds from all over the nation. It was the darling of D.C. bookies.

The Post stood all alone. The Times-Herald, the other morning paper, was owned by some-time American Firster, the Chicago Tribune's Bertie McCormick, who dedicated his last years to trying to smash the communist menace; he failed. This was the era when the "liberal" label was pasted on the struggling operation, still in the 1500 block of M Street NW. The turnaround came on St. Patrick's Day, 1954, when the Post Company's John S. Hayes traveled to Chicago to buy Mr. McCormick out.

Whatever the slam intended - the word liberal is rarely meant as a compliment - under a remarkable Eugene "Butch" Meyer and his son-in-law Phil Graham the Post met its Jeffersonian responsibility. Without fear and with no hope of favor reporters like Murray Marder, Bud Nossiter and Eddie Folliard, working under editors Russ Wiggins and Al Friendly, met the primary obligation of acting as a watchdog on government. A role later played by Mr. Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate era.

The transformation of the proud traditions forged on M Street into the corporation that insulted American journalism and its adherents cannot be fully explained. Endorsing a man who lacks regard, respect and simple acceptance of the role the media must play in any democracy literally blows my mind.

My stock fell through the floor with the Graham family when I reported in 1975 the calculated plot to break the Post's unions; my ties to the company generated pain for me in realizing the scheme amounted to castrating pressmen, for example, whom the present publisher's grandfather honored by wearing their paper hat in the newsroom.

My reporting on the resulting strike brought me no friends among the present owners: Phil and Kay Graham's children.

Yet what has been done by endorsing Republican Bob Ehrlich is more insidious, and this has nothing to do with his politics. At least the pressmen's strike was a purely internal affair, although the impact resonated throughout the newspaper community.

The Post's editorial board turned the paper's international reputation against the proposition that the media have every right, under the Founding Fathers' precedent, to cover politicians and their deeds. This is not a legal matter, to be settled by courts.

Refusing reporters' access to information that should be made public smacks of dictatorships that demand controlling all information. Approving that tactic by endorsing its author is ethically reprehensible at least.

Present Post President Don Graham should be taken to the woodshed and have his bottom spanked, in the spirit of his grandfather. "Butch" Meyer, although a banker by profession, understood enough about journalism to approve the spanking.

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