December 26, 2017

IT’S COME TO THIS: Back in February Bill Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard tweeted, “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.” The once-stalwart conservative spent the rest of the year harrumphing Trump’s policies, and predicting in August, “Tax reform won’t even get a vote in Congress this year. I’d be surprised if it made it through committee in either house.” During a late October tweetstorm spotted by Bryon York of the Washington Examiner, Kristol labeled “those who fail to denounce Trump ‘collaborators’ and ‘fellow travelers.’”

Which brings us to the latest issue of Kristol’s magazine, which gushes with praise over Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post from August of 1963, when she inherited the paper after her husband committed suicide, until her son Donald took over in 1979. During this tumultuous period in America’s history, Graham’s paper published (along with the New York Times) the anti-Vietnam War “Pentagon Papers,” and then led the reporting on Watergate. The latter was condensed into the (much fictionalized but brilliant) motion picture All the President’s Men. The former is the subject of Steven Spielberg’s latest movie The Post. As Armond White of NRO notes in his critical review, “Spielberg directs it as an addendum to All the President’s Men (1976), the most narcissistic of all newspaper films.”

Curiously though, the Standard’s article on the movie is headlined, “In ‘The Post’ Katharine Graham Finally Gets Her Due,” and is written by “Amy Henderson…Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery, [who] writes frequently on media and culture.” Henderson gushes that:

[Liz Hylton, Graham’s long-time executive assistant (played in the movie by Jennifer Dundas)] also introduced me to Ben Bradlee. Then in his late ’80s, he still radiated abundant charm. In the movie The Post, Tom Hanks plays Bradlee and is terrific, but I couldn’t shake the memory of Ben Bradlee’s glow-in-the-dark dazzle.

Meryl Streep nails her character—snagging wonderfully how Katharine Graham looked, sounded, moved, and gestured. The one dissonant chord I felt was how her character is portrayed in 1971 when the Post first became entangled with the Pentagon Papers crisis. Graham by then had been publisher for eight years, and I think she had grown beyond the hesitant and deferential person depicted early in the movie. She hired Bradlee in 1965, and the paper had steadily moved toward being a national paper competitive with the New York Times. By 1971, Graham was certainly not the woman she had described in her memoir as “not capable of governing, leading, or managing anything but our homes and children.”

The movie telescopes Katharine Graham’s transformation quickly during the Pentagon Papers crisis, depicting her telling Bradlee at a critical point, “Yes, let’s go, let’s publish.” This scene shows that she has gathered the strength and leadership that will be crucial during the coming Watergate crisis, where it would be her decision to allow Woodward and Bernstein to proceed with the investigation that brought down a president.

In her centennial year, The Post is finally giving Katharine Graham the recognition she deserves. Three cheers!

Fascinating to read a once-conservative Website describe the media’s destruction of a Republican president as an apparently unalloyed good thing. (“Three cheers!”) For a much-less hagiographic portrait of Graham (whom we now know, in addition to the JFK-worshipping Bradlee, also employed his Ouija board toting wife Sally Quinn), Mark Steyn’s 2001 obit has you covered:

One writer stood head and shoulders above the crowd, which admittedly isn’t terribly difficult when everybody else is prostrate. The anonymous editorialist at The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review evidently returned from lunch drunk and momentarily forgot himself. Possibly while working as a busboy in Washington in the early Sixties he’d been the victim of some casual slight by Mrs Graham. At any rate, summing up her life he started conventionally enough but then wandered deplorably off-message:

Born in New York City, the daughter of multimillionaire Eugene Meyer, she grew up privileged. In keeping with her father’s fortune, she graduated from Vassar College, where she was involved with the leftist trends of the day …

She married Felix Frankfurter’s brilliant law clerk, Philip Graham, who took over running The Post, which her father purchased at a bankruptcy sale. Graham built the paper but became estranged from Kay. She had him committed to a mental hospital, and he was clearly intending divorce when she signed him out and took him for a weekend outing during which he was found shot. His death was ruled a suicide. Within 48 hours, she declared herself the publisher.

That’s the stuff! As the Tribune-Review’s chap has it, Mrs G got her philandering spouse banged up in the nuthouse and then arranged a weekend pass with a one-way ticket. “His death was ruled a suicide.” Lovely touch that. Is it really possible Katharine Graham offed her hubby? Who cares? To those who think the worst problem with the American press is its awful stultifying homogeneity, the Tribune-Review’s deranged perverseness is to be cherished. Give that man a Pulitzer!

But, of course, they never do. Instead, with feeble predictability, they gave the Pulitzer to Mrs Graham’s own carefully veiled memoir, Personal History. Her formula for her publications was succinctly expressed: “Mass With Class” – “perhaps the best three-word definition for what a good news magazine should be,” wrote Mark Whitaker in Newsweek*. But what “Mass With Class” boils down to in practice is the genteel middlebrow conformity that makes so much of the mainstream US media such a world-class yawnfest. “Mass With Class” means you don’t ask Hillary Clinton about her husband’s perjury and trashing of his female, ahem, acquaintances but only whether she finds it difficult coping with the accusations and if she thinks this is because conservatives have a difficult time dealing with her as a strong intelligent woman in her own right.

It retrospect, it was the first word in Graham’s “Mass With Class” strategy that made her publications viable far more than Graham’s desire for a parlor-room tone. There simply weren’t a whole lot of alternatives for news about DC during Graham’s heyday, as I wrote a decade ago in “Atlas Mugged,” a history of “How a Gang of Scrappy Individual Bloggers Broke the Stranglehold of the Mainstream Media:”

By the early 1970s, mass media had reached its zenith (if you’ll pardon the pun). Most Americans were getting their news from one of three TV networks’ half-hour nightly broadcasts. With the exception of New York, most big cities had only one or two primary newspapers. And no matter what a modern newspaper’s lineage, by and large its articles, except for local issues, came from global wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters; it took its editorial lead from the New York Times; and it claimed to be impartial (while usually failing miserably).

Up until the Reagan years, [Shannon Love of the libertarian-leaning Chicago Boyz econoblog] says, “definitely fewer than one hundred people, and maybe as few as twenty people, actually decided what constituted national news in the United States.” These individuals were principally concentrated within a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the middle of which was home to the offices of the New York Times. The aptly nicknamed “Gray Lady” largely shaped the editorial agendas not just of newspapers but of television, as well. As veteran TV news correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote in his 2003 book Arrogance, “If the New York Times went on strike tomorrow morning, they’d have to cancel the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening newscasts tomorrow night.”

Love calls this “the Parliament of Clocks”: creating the illusion of truth or accuracy by force of consensus. “Really, the only way that consumers can tell that they’re getting accurate information is to check another media source,” Love says. “And unfortunately, that creates an incentive for the media sources to all agree on the same story.”

Curiously, old media hates the Internet’s diversity of news sources, and in the post-9/11 era, their rapidly growing popularity on both sides of the aisle ultimately led to the Graham family famously offloading Newsweek in 2010 for a dollar to elderly stereo mogul Sidney Harman (it’s since been sold), and then the Post itself to Jeff Bezos in 2013 for $250 million. “A huge wad to be sure,” John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post at the time, “but 1/20th of what the paper’s selling price might have been 15 years ago when no one thought it would ever be for sale — [it] is a reminder of the biblical adage: How art the mighty fallen.It certainly was mighty. And it deserved its fall. The Washington Post was once both a great and hateful newspaper.”

It’s no wonder that Spielberg and the MSM are nostalgic for an earlier era, when the MSM’s bottleneck on information led to the toppling of a Republican president**, and have the feverish desire to put the band back together again and do it again. The big surprise is that Kristol’s Weekly Standard seems to be yearning to see such an outcome as well.

* “Mass with Class” is definitely not the operating approach of Newsweek’s current incarnation.

** As veteran journalist Joseph Campbell notes at his Media Myth Alert blog, it wasn’t nearly that straightforward, but self-serving journalistic fables die particularly hard.

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