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Katherine Graham

1917 – 2001

“No one can avoid aging, but aging productively is something else.”

Smart Cookie

During the 1970s, a number of remarkable women made meaningful advances in the world of business. Some, like Katherine Graham, were thrust into their roles. After her graduation from The University of Chicago, Graham worked as a waterfront reporter for the San Francisco News, returning to Washington, D.C. a year later to join the staff of The Washington Post. The Post was one of a shrinking handful of U.S. newspapers with national readership and international coverage — and one that happened to be owned by her father.

When her father died in 1946, he left the newspaper not to Katherine Graham, but to her husband, Philip. “My father said to me, and I certainly went long with it, that ‘No man should work for his wife,’” she later recounted in her memoir. Her husband, Philip Graham, was a brilliant publisher and the business director of her father’s company. However, he suffered from bipolar disorder and frequently lapsed into depression. He committed suicide in 1963, leaving Katherine to run The Washington Post, the Washington Times-Herald and Newsweek magazine. Although she claimed not to know much about running a newspaper, it was under her stewardship that The Post broke new ground.

In 1972, Graham revived the old-fashioned journalistic scoop by approving an aggressive investigation of a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, putting her faith in two relatively unknown reporters: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Linking the break-in to the Republican Party and eventually to the Nixon White House was gutsy in itself. What made it more so was that for months The Post was the only paper reporting the story. Graham said at the time: “If this is such a hell of a story, then where is everybody else?” Other papers eventually began covering the Watergate scandal, but it was the work of The Post that prompted the Senate to begin its investigation of the break-in that eventually resulted in the impeachment and resignation of President Richard Nixon. 

In 1976, with Ben Bradley as its editor, The Post cooperated closely with The New York Times to obtain what came to be called the Pentagon Papers — highly sensitive secret documents detailing the nature and extent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Executives of both papers faced extreme federal pressure and a court order to prevent publication of the documents (“prior restraint”) on national security grounds, and risked jail if they proceeded. But proceed they did. And in one of the most important judicial victories for freedom of the press in modern times, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld their right to publish the Pentagon Papers. 

As chairman and principal owner of the Washington Post Company from 1975 to 1985, Graham controlled the nation’s fifth largest publishing empire. Its profits during that period grew more than 20 percent annually, and her leadership altered the state of politics and journalism in America. In 1998, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her autobiography, Personal History. When she died in 2001, a Washington lawyer, Bob Barnett, wrote, “Those people who worked with her, closely with her, at home and at The Post, were every bit as important to her as the highest government official or highest foreign dignitary.”

 

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