Katharine Graham

The Washington Post, United States.

From publishing the Pentagon Papers, to taking The Washington Post public, to proceeding with the Watergate investigation despite enormous pressures, Katharine Graham (1917-2001) distinguished herself with the courageous choices that have helped lead The Washington Post to a golden period, and also helped shape the nation’s political history.

She originally joined the staff of The Washington Post working in the editorial and circulation departments, moving up to serve as publisher from 1969 to 1979 and became Chairman of the Board from 1973 to 1991.

Graham broke through gender barriers by becoming the first woman on the board of several powerful media groups, including the powerful Associated Press and the American Newspaper Publishers Association. In 1998, she received a Pulitzer Prize for her memoir, Personal History.

She was born in 1917 into a privileged family in New York City. Her father was Eugene Meyer, a millionaire banker and, later the owner of The Washington Post.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, she started working for The San Francisco News. She also joined the Newspaper Guild, the reporters’ union. In 1940, she married Philip Graham, a brilliant, young Harvard-educated lawyer, and started working for the editorial and circulation departments of her father’s newspaper shortly after marriage.

Philip Graham became publisher of the Post in 1946 when his father-in-law handed over the newspaper to him. “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” She wrote in her autobiography, Personal History.

In 1963, Philip Graham died at the height of his influence in national politics. At that time, Katherine Graham, with no experience in business and only some in journalism, was faced with a critical decision. Instead of selling the newspaper, she decided to run it herself with the support from a lot of other people.

She hired Benjamin Bradlee, a Newsweek bureau chief to help her with the business her father and her husband had built. Bradlee and Graham worked together and pushed the Post to a golden period, when it tested the Constitutional will of the U.S. Supreme Court, published information that would lead to the resignation of the President of the United States, and joined Fortune Magazine’s list of the 500 largest industrial companies in America. The success of running Post also changed Katherine Graham from a diligent wife to one of the most powerful women in the country.

Great attention was drawn to Graham and the Post when the Pentagon Papers case broke out in 1971. The paper was a study about U.S.-Vietnam relations by the Department of Defense, which revealed the government’s systematic lies to the public and the Congress about significant national interest issues. After The New York Times was prohibited by Nixon government from publishing anymore of the study on grounds of national security, Graham had a difficult decision to make: should the Post, which got its own copy within three days, take risk to get involved in the confrontation with the U.S. government? After hearing arguments from both sides, she told the editors to go ahead. The U.S. Supreme Court then ruled in favor of The New York Times, so publishing Pentagon Papers was a violation of national security.

A year later in 1972, another historical conflict with the government came. For months, The Post became the only one publication to cover what was then known as the Watergate Scandal. She admitted she had doubts several times, but she trusted her staff. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, and Graham won national praise for her courage in sticking with such a seemingly improbable story.

Graham’s success was a result of multiple reasons, but among them, one of the principles her father set when he bought the Post in 1933 probably was one. “The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large and not to the private interests of its owners.”

Note: Some of the information in this article came from The Washington Post.

Katharine Graham is the third IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award winner from the United States, following Nan Robertson (1993) and Barbara Walters (1992). Awardees after Graham include: Helen Thomas (1995), Meg Greenfield (1996), Nancy Woodhull (1997), Bonnie Angelo (1998), Peggy Peterman (1999), Flora Lewis (2000), Colleen “Koky” Dishon (2001), Mary McGrory(2002), Belva Davis (2004), Molly Ivins (2005) and Edith Lederer (2008).

Highlights