It has taken Katharine Graham a long time to discover all the things she’s good at. Back in 1963, she went from timorous housewife to newspaper publisher after her husband shot himself. In the 1970s, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories, she discovered she had more stones than William Randolph Hearst and Larry Flynt put together. Along the way, she turned the Washington Post Co. into a publishing house that prints, along with some rather fine titles, gobs and gobs of money. Last year, at the age of 79, she came forth with an acclaimed autobiography, Personal History, a Washington tell-all that told the truth, of all things. The only source of wrinkles on Graham’s well-preserved brow has been the recent Pulitzer drought at the paper, which has snared just one award in the last three years.
Graham took care of that earlier this week. Her paper may be out of the hunt, but the 80-year-old former publisher put a skin on the wall by winning the Pulitzer for biography. On a day when Posties were likely to stare at their shoes and wonder what the hell was wrong, Graham made sure the moping was interrupted by the sound of champagne corks and a barely audible newsroom speech.
Bob Kaiser, who will be leaving the managing editor job at the Post this June, sounded sincerely pleased Tuesday afternoon.
“This is a very exciting event for Kay, for the Post, and we are all thrilled,” said Kaiser. “I would rather that she won [one] than we won three for journalism.” My, the champagne must have really been flowing.
While Pulitzer politics are more Byzantine than condo association intrigue, Graham’s award was viewed by most as a kind of Lifetime Achievement Award as much as recognition for her autobiography.
“I think that this is just years of payback,” said one longtime journalism observer. “She was a housewife who came in and turned this paper into something. She did some gutsy, wonderful things when her time came, and I think the people on the committee were interested in recognizing that. And she sat down and wrote that damn book with no ghost in sight.”
Word of Graham’s triumph worked its way through the newsroom just after lunch, no doubt taking some of the sting out of a year when the newspaper got skunked in the only journalism competition that matters. The New York Times knocked down three awards, for international reporting, beat reporting, and criticism. The Los Angeles Times took home awards for breaking-news reporting and feature photography. The Post had clearly hoped for better, although the endgame was obvious when the paper had just a single finalist—for foreign reporting—on the table for the final round of judging.
The lack of performance certainly doesn’t stem from a shortage of ardor. Editor Len Downie, who was unavailable for comment, is said to be frantic about the paper’s sorry showing in the past few years.
“I’m sure there has been and will be endless talk at Pugwash [the Post’s annual leadership mindmeld] about how to get back in the race. Downie, like most editors, lives for awards. And it drives him crazy that they can’t seem to break through,” suggested another observer.
The trend is much less humiliating if you reach back five years. Since that time, the Post has won seven Pulitzers, while the Times has taken home 11, the Los Angeles Times four, and the Wall St. Journal five. There is a nagging doubt at the Post, however, that the paper can crack the code of Pulitzer imperatives. The paper went back to one of its strengths in the past year, saddling up Katharine Boo over a long-term poverty reporting project that recalled Leon Dash’s winner about Rosa Lee in the 1993 competition. But even though the series was well received locally, it didn’t get far with the Pulitzer judges.
And when the Post brass choose their Pulitzer nominees, they don’t find many pieces like Boo’s—colorful stories about actual human beings with implications that go beyond who’s ahead and behind. In the Downie era, most of the paper’s resources and energy go into serving as a very incisive office newsletter recording every hiccup inside the Beltway, which is not the kind of thing that’s going to edify judges drawn from all over the country.
And the paper’s tendency to spend a great deal of time and space on thinly sourced peeks inside the government undoubtedly didn’t gain much traction in a committee chaired by Geneva Overholser, the Post ombudsman who has barely been able to hide her disgust with the paper’s tendency to publish news from nowhere. (Her contract is up in June, when she will take the clothespin off her nose and go on to her next endeavor. The feeling is mutual, by most reports.)
Perhaps the Post is a victim of its beat. Washington may be a place where everything starts, but not much gets finished here. The Baltimore Sun won with an investigative series on the dangers posed to workers who dismantle ships. Nothing is built or dismantled in Washington, other than consensus. And the Los Angeles Times won for its coverage of a botched bank robbery. The Post is good at a lot of things, but could you see it going tactical on a bank robbery?
Faithful Beltway bible that it is, the Post will likely spend the space and the bigfoots on Monica until she shrinks to a very small dot on the screen of most Americans. Next year, the Post will no doubt discover that while presidential peccadillos may sell papers, they won’t merit hardware come Pulitzer time.
Generational Dialogue Speaking of blowjobs—that’s exactly what Post columnist Richard Cohen was doing when he got his whatjamajigger caught in a wringer. Cohen, who works out of the Post’s New York office, reportedly engaged younger news aide Devon Spurgeon in an office chat about Gen Xers’ affection for expressing themselves orally. Details are very sketchy—the Post may be on a mission from God to expose indiscretions in the Oval Office, but pity the poor hack who’s seeking information about the allegedly boorish behavior of a Post staffer.
As best as could be discerned absent any official cooperation, bureau chief Blaine Harden reportedly threw a flag about Cohen’s remarks. The only person who was talking, ironically or not, was Richard Cohen, and even he didn’t have a lot to say:
“It was a personality conflict. It has been resolved. It did not involve sexual harassment, unfortunately, because I’m sure that would have been a better story. There is nothing to it. Beyond that, I am not telling you what happened.” At this point, a bit of derision crept into Cohen’s voice: “I am not telling you what happened. I can’t comment. It’s an internal matter. Highly classified. All very top-secret.”
Harden referred calls to deputy managing editor Milton Coleman, which were not returned. Spurgeon did not return calls.
A Post staffer in a position to know but with no particular authority backed up Cohen’s assertion that there was no finding of sexual harassment. Another colleague put it thus: “My impression is that Devon is very new and perhaps she hasn’t accustomed herself to—ah, Richard’s rhythms.”
Those rhythms have reportedly coursed uninterrupted along some pretty loutish lines for the past few decades. “Every time Cohen steps up on a gender-related issue in his column, I know a lot of sphincters tighten among the editors because he has a history. Not that he was going around and grabbing people, but he’s just someone who kept the pressure on most of the young women he came across at work,” said a former colleague.
Jack Shafer, deputy editor of Slate and longtime Post observer while he was editor of Washington City Paper, pointed out that journalism is a more complicated pursuit in an age when “presidential timber” can mean a host of things.
“It used to be that you could talk about sucking cock in the newsroom, but you could never put it in the paper,” noted Shafer. “Now, it’s in the newspaper every day, and it has become a crime to speak of cunnilingus or fellatio in the office.”
“I don’t know what happened exactly, but if he was making jokes about blowjobs, there is a time proven remedy for these sorts of problems. What ever happened to ‘Shut the fuck up, Richard?’” Shafer added.
Now Urine Trouble Let’s hear it for clean and sober journalism. Well, at least clean and sober in the sense of being produced by people whose pee doesn’t include telltale signs of drug use. The Post recently joined the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and a host of other papers in requiring a pre-employment drug test for all employees, from the guy who drives the forklift moving paper rolls weighing several tons to the writers who drive nothing heftier than a mouse. A little over a year ago, when Georgia was planning on making candidates pee in a cup, the Post editorial page inveighed, “There are other means of sorting out the unworthy…that reveal flaws without testing thousands of people without probable cause.” They also mentioned that it was probably unconstitutional, but, uh, that’s another story, isn’t it? Current staffers, who have nothing to fear given their grandfather status, were all over the map, from miffed to mystified.
“I’d have to go for some sort of snowboarder defense if it came to that. I’m already here, but I think it’s ridiculous,” said one.
One Postie speaks from experience: “I interned at another paper, and they didn’t tell me about any drug test. Now I smoke pot about three times a year, but all of the sudden they were telling me that I had to take a drug test. The timing was bad….I was at a friend’s and we got stoned and watched The Muppet Movie. I told them at the time that I lived with hard-core pot smokers and that it would take time for my system to clean out….They gave me a week, and I drank so much water that I made noise when I walked. My urine was so diluted with water when I gave it to them that they thought that I had cut it with water out of the tap. Thankfully, they gave me another one a week later and I passed.”
The staffer got misty-eyed when talking about what the new Calvinism has wrought on journalism: “When I got into this business, I thought that editors would have bourbon tucked in their drawer and we would be having drinks at the end of the day. That hasn’t happened.”
The Business Pages It’s been a good year so far at 15th and L. It began with some inside- and below-the-Beltway indiscretions that have put Washington back above the rim of American consciousness—an opportunity the Washington Post has cashed in on nicely. And the balance sheet at the Washington Post Co. is a pretty splendid read as well. According to the Post Co. annual report released earlier this month, the company made $281.5 million in net income, a 28 percent increase over the prior year. —David Carr