Media Beat: KATHARINE GRAHAM'S FIRST DRAFT
by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- Some time before he committed suicide 38 years ago, lea= ving the Washington Post Co. in the hands of his widow Katharine, pu= blisher Philip Graham described journalism as "the first draft of history."
Katharine Graham's death prompted a flood of media accolades in mid-July= . But history -- no matter how early the draft -- should not be distorted= by easy adulation of the powerful.
A few hours after she passed away, typical coverage aired on the "NewsHo= ur With Jim Lehrer." The PBS program featured a roundtable discussion "to h= elp us assess the life and impact of Katharine Graham." One of the guests w= as historian Michael Beschloss, who often appears on major tv networks.
Beschloss summed up the historic role of Katharine Graham. "She always s= poke truth to power," he said. The assertion was absurd. Naturally, it went= unchallenged by the other two panelists, both longtime high-ranking employ= ees of the Washington Post Co.
After decades in the Post newsroom as a national-security reporte= r, Walter Pincus was on hand to comment about Mrs. Graham. "She had an inst= inct for honesty and what's right," he told viewers, "and the book is the f= irst time that became public."
"The book" -- her acclaimed autobiography "Personal History" -- received= enormous media praise and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Graham's death s= et off a new explosion of tributes to her bestseller.
On NPR's "Morning E= dition," the editor of The New Yorker magazine opted for hyperbole. "She wr= ote one of the great autobiographies," David Remnick said. The day before, = he had been on the same network, lauding the same book as "incredibly genui= ne and generous and real."
"Personal History" is true to the first word of the title. The book does= an excellent job of chronicling an individual's struggle to rebound from t= ragedy and overcome sexist barriers. Yet the book is a heavy volume of hist= oric narcissism -- a magnum opus of upper-class vainglory and scrupulous ev= asion.
Prior to her admirable support for the Post's breakthrough report= ing on Watergate nearly 30 years ago, Graham was a key player in the June 1= 971 battle over the Pentagon Papers. But such journalistic fortitude came l= ate in the Vietnam War. During most of the bloodshed, the Post gave = consistent editorial boosts to the war and routinely regurgitated propagand= a in the guise of objective reporting. Graham's book never comes close to a= cknowledging that her newspaper mainly functioned as a helpmate to the war-= makers in the White House, State Department and Pentagon.
Though she was president of the Washington Post Co. by then, "Per= sonal History" makes no mention of the pivotal Gulf of Tonkin incident in e= arly August 1964. Like other daily papers, the Post dutifully report= ed the U.S. government's lies as facts. Within days, Congress passed the Gu= lf of Tonkin Resolution, opening the door to massive escalation of the war.
Three years ago, I interviewed Murrey Marder, the reporter who wrote muc= h of the Washington Post's coverage of the Tonkin Gulf events. He re= called that the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese navy had been shelling North V= ietnamese coastal islands just prior to the supposed "attack" by North Viet= nam on a U.S. ship in the Tonkin Gulf. But the fix was in: "Before I could = do anything as a reporter, the Washington Post had endorsed the Gulf= of Tonkin Resolution."
Asked whether the Post ever retracted its Tonkin Gulf reporting, = Marder replied: "I can assure you that there was never any retraction." He = added: "If you were making a retraction, you'd have to make a retraction of= virtually everyone's entire coverage of the Vietnam War."
Graham's 625-p= age book offers no hint of introspection about the human costs of her warti= me discretion.
In August 1966, she huddled with a writer in line to take charge of the= editorial page. "We agreed," she wrote, "that the Post ought to wor= k its way out of the very supportive editorial position it had taken, but t= hat we couldn't be precipitous; we had to move away gradually from where we= had been." Terrible years of further carnage resulted from such unwillingn= ess to "be precipitous."
While devoting many pages to her warm friendships with top U.S. governme= nt officials and business tycoons, the book expresses no concern that the <= i>Post has been serving the political and economic agendas of corporate= elites. The autobiography has little use for people beyond Graham's dazzli= ng peers. Even activists who made history are mere walk-ons. In her book, t= he name of Martin Luther King Jr. was not worth mentioning.
For a book so= widely touted as a feminist parable, "Personal History" is notably bereft = of solidarity for women without affluence or white skin. They barely seem t= o exist in the great media executive's range of vision.
If Katharine Graham "always spoke truth to power," then journalism and h= istory are lost in a murky twilight zone.
Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." = His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.