This article chronicles the life of Katherine Graham, only the second female journalist of her time, and who established The Washington Post as an authority on politics and issues of federal government. The Post gained widespread prominence for its coverage of the Watergate scandal, and was pivotal in ousting President Nixon from presidency.
In 2014, the Post was purchased by Jeff Bezos (the richest man on the planet at the time of writing) for $250 million.
Katherine Meyer was born into a privileged household to business tycoon Eugene Meyer, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Her mother was an art lover, and had been a newspaper reporter at a time when journalism was completely dominated by men. Her father’s buyout of The Washington Post at an auction brought Katherine in contact with journalism since a young age.
After her marriage to Harvard graduate Philip Graham, and her father’s subsequent death, the reins of The Washington Post were surprisingly handed over to Graham, instead of Meyer’s own daughter. Graham worked on inking deals with several TV stations to expand the Post’s reach. However, his constant battle with mental illness ultimately led him to commit suicide—causing the ownership and control of the Post to come under Katherine abruptly.
Facing the male stereotype
In Katherine’s autobiography Personal History, released in 1987, she mentioned how she completely lacked confidence and knowledge required for such a position. On top of that, being the only female in the all-male board team made it difficult for her to assert her opinion. As she remarked of her board room presentations—“One speaker after another used to start his presentation coyly by saying, “Lady and gentlemen,” or “Gentlemen and Mrs. Graham,” always with slight giggles or snickers.” Katherine would often end her conversations with male colleagues ending with “If it’s alright with you”—bowing down to their phantom male superiority. For 8 years, she thought the prevailing attitude to be the norm, until a major news shook the country, and changed Katherine for the better—The Pentagon Papers.
The Post’s watershed moment arrived when a scandal concerning the Vietnam War was uncovered by a group of journalists. A set of top secret documents, dubbed the Pentagon Papers, detailed the atrocities committed by the Nixon government in the Vietnam War. It also provided evidence of the conflicting statements issued to the public by those mentioned in the documents, highlighting what had actually occurred. The New York Times, though the first one to publish the story, were embroiled in a messy legal battle with the government over its content. Katherine sensed the potential impact the Pentagon Papers contents would have on national viewership. More importantly, she saw it a moral obligation as a news organisation to inform the public of any wrongdoings on behalf of the federal government.
Fully aware of the consequences of attacking the present government over controversial content, Graham went ahead with the press release. The coverage of the Watergate scandal immediately caught national attention, and catapulted the Post’s status to one of fearlessness, authenticity, and authoritativeness in the realm of political journalism. Despite threats from politicians, even those in Nixon’s cabinet, Graham continued to churn out astonishing details behind the scandal.
Apart from fulfilling its moral obligations, the Post also gained subscribers in large numbers in the process. The Post’s consistent reporting on the issue for 2 years was instrumental in ousting Nixon from the White House, the first and only American president till date to succumb to such a fate. The Washington Post, and especially Graham’s leadership, were widely applauded for their courageous reporting and hard-hitting articles.
The Watergate scandal
The Watergate scandal, the biggest political scandal in the history of the United States, was first reported by The Washington Post in a full front page article in June 1972. It unearthed the underhand tactics employed by the Nixon administration to monitor actions and movements of their political opponents, activists and even members of their own party. Members of Nixon’s team had burgled their way into the Democratic National Convention’s headquarters, and used the money robbed to fund the campaign to re-elect Nixon. The news gained immediate traction, and was easily the most followed news in United States, for at least a decade.
Despite looming threats of serious prosecution and backlash from the erstwhile administration, Graham went ahead with the plan to publish the article. In an interview with radio program Fresh Air in 1971, Graham remarked “Some people have referred to that as courageous. And I didn’t view it as courageous. I viewed it as we had no choice. I think courage is when you have a choice, and you choose to be courageous”.
After resigning from the position of The Post’s Chairman in the early 1990s, Katherine went on to publish her memoir Personal History in 1997, in which she chronicled her early life as a “doormat wife”, and her sudden decision to lead Washington Post. Describing herself as timid and the difficulties faced when dealing with an all-male boardroom, she elaborated on the insecurities she felt in that role.
The memoir went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for its compelling, hard-hitting narrative and serving an inspiration to millions of working women. At a time when females are finally getting their due in all walks of life, Katherine Meyer Graham can be proud that she paved the way for future women trailblazers to follow through her acts of courage, defiance and fearlessness.
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Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.