Monday, July 6, 2009

July 6: Katharine's World

By Sylvia Gurinsky

(Full disclosure: I am a former employee of WPLG-Channel 10, which is owned by the Washington Post Company.)

One of the worst moments of the tenure of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham came in 1981, in the fallout over an article called "Jimmy's World," about a little boy who was a drug addict. The article, written by a young reporter named Janet Cooke, impressed plenty of people, enough to win a Pulitzer Prize. A day later, Cooke and The Post returned the award when it was revealed that "Jimmy" did not exist. The following week, the paper published an extensive - and honest - study of how Cooke's piece got past the safeguards the paper had established for accuracy and ethics. Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee, who had led the paper since before its Watergate reporting glories, took the heat.

So did Graham. It was characteristic of both.

This week, Graham's granddaughter, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, had her own "Jimmy's World" moment with the revelation - in Politico, an online competitor of The Post - that Weymouth had planned various "salons" with Post journalists and Washington bigwigs for sponsors who would pay for the privilege.

That was the problem. Post reporters and editors feared, rightly, that it would compromise their ability to do their work.

The plans have been cancelled. In yesterday's paper, Weymouth published an apology:

It's true her grandmother would frequently dine with political, business and civic leaders, but it was always on Graham's dime. Graham, who had worked for The Post as a labor reporter when her father, Eugene Meyer, ran the paper, did not interfere with Bradlee's running of the newsroom. But as she proved repeatedly during the Watergate era and beyond, she was willing to take the heat when things went wrong.

Weymouth's mother, Elizabeth or Lally, as she's known, is also a reporter, having done numerous interviews of world leaders for Newsweek in recent years. Despite the family history, Katharine Weymouth apparently did not gain any newsroom experience to go with her business experience - a problem common among many of today's newspaper executives. The lack of journalism experience shows.

Weymouth has taken responsibility. For her grandmother, that would have been the final step. For Weymouth, it has to be the first step. She has yet to learn the lessons her grandmother, a widow with little business experience when she took over The Post in 1963, had already learned.

Chief among them: Without integrity, any media outlet has nothing.

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