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Katharine Graham, 1917- 2001: A Powerful Media Leader in America

06 April, 2013

VOICE ONE: I'm Shirley Griffith. VOICE TWO: And I'm Doug Johnson with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today we tell about Katharine Graham. She was the owner and publisher of The Washington Post newspaper. (MUSIC) VOICE ONE:
Katharine Graham
Katharine Graham
Katharine Meyer Graham was once described as "the most powerful woman in America." She was not a government official or elected representative. She owned and published The Washington Post newspaper. Under her leadership, it became one of the most important newspapers in the country.
Katharine Meyer was born in New York City in nineteen seventeen. She was the daughter of Eugene and Agnes Meyer. Her father was a successful investment banker. He became an important financial official. Her family was very rich. Katharine grew up in large houses in New York and Washington. Her parents were often away from home, traveling and working. Katharine was often lonely. Katherine Meyer graduated from the University of Chicago in Illinois in nineteen thirty-eight.  She got a job as a reporter for a newspaper in San Francisco, California. VOICE TWO: In nineteen thirty-three, Eugene Meyer had bought a failing newspaper, The Washington Post. It was the least successful of five newspapers in Washington.  Katharine returned to Washington and got a job editing letters to the editor of her father's newspaper. She married Philip Graham. He was a lawyer and former assistant to two Supreme Court justices. Mister Graham soon accepted a job at his wife's father's newspaper. In nineteen forty-six, Eugene Meyer left the newspaper to become the first president of the World Bank. Philip Graham became publisher of The Washington Post. VOICE ONE: Mister Graham improved The Washington Post. He bought Newsweek magazine and several television stations. He also established close ties with important political leaders.  However, Mister Graham treated his wife badly. He made her feel unimportant. He had a sexual relationship with a young reporter. For many years, Mister Graham suffered from mental illness. He killed himself in nineteen sixty-three. VOICE TWO: Katharine Graham had four children to raise and a newspaper to operate. At first, she was concerned only with finding a way to keep control of The Washington Post until her sons were old enough to supervise it.  She was an insecure person. She did not think she had the ability to do an important job. She had no training in business or experience in operating a large company. In those days, it was unusual for a woman to be the head of a business. Women were expected to supervise only their homes and children. VOICE ONE:
Benjamin Bradlee
Benjamin Bradlee
Katharine Graham met with officials of The Post. She told them the paper would not be sold. She said it would remain in her family. She was elected president of The Washington Post Company. She had no idea about how to operate a newspaper. So she decided to learn. She began by hiring Benjamin Bradlee. He later became chief editor. Mister Bradlee improved the newspaper. He hired excellent reporters and editors. They began doing important investigative reporting. In nineteen sixty-nine, Missus Graham became publisher as well as president of The Washington Post Company.
(MUSIC) VOICE TWO: In the nineteen seventies, The Washington Post became famous around the world because of two major successes. In nineteen seventy-one, The New York Times newspaper started publishing secret government documents about American involvement in the Vietnam War. They were known as the Pentagon Papers. The administration of President Richard Nixon appealed to the courts to stop the publication of the documents. It said publication would endanger national security. A temporary restraining order from a federal judge stopped The New York Times from publishing the documents. VOICE ONE: Washington Post reporters also got a copy of the Pentagon Papers. They also wanted to publish the documents. Missus Graham had to decide if the paper would publish the stories and risk possible punishment by the government. The newspaper's lawyers advised her not to publish them. Yet she decided to publish the Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post. The Supreme Court finally decided the issue. They ruled against the judge's order restraining publication of the Pentagon Papers. That ruling was considered a major success for freedom of the press. (MUSIC) VOICE TWO:
Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post in 1973
Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post in 1973
The next year, in nineteen seventy-two, The Washington Post had another major success reporting on a different story.
Five men had been arrested after breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building.  Reporters at The Post began an intense investigation of the break-in. The Post published a series of stories by two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. After much investigation, the reporters linked the Watergate break-in to President Nixon and his top advisers. Their stories proved that the Nixon administration directed a plot. Its goals were to illegally gather intelligence on the Democratic Party and dishonor opponents of the president. VOICE ONE: Missus Graham supported her reporters and editors through the long Watergate investigation.  The Post published the stories even though government officials threatened Missus Graham and her company.  The newspaper was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service in nineteen seventy-three for its Watergate reporting. The next year, President Nixon resigned from office. (MUSIC) VOICE TWO: Katharine Graham was recognized around the world as an important leader in newspaper publishing.  She was the first woman to head a major American company. She successfully expanded The Washington Post Company to include newspaper, magazine, broadcast and cable companies. Katharine Graham played an important role in supporting women in the workforce. More women were employed at The Post and at Newsweek magazine.  Missus Graham also was active in groups seeking to improve public education in Washington. She traveled around the country to make many public speeches about news media issues. She also traveled around the world to meet with foreign leaders. VOICE ONE: Katharine Graham was well known for having dinner parties at her home in Washington. She invited the most important people in the city. An invitation to one of her parties was almost as valuable as an invitation to dinner at the White House. Missus Graham was a close friend of American and world leaders. Her friends included leaders in government, media, business and entertainment. They included presidents, prime ministers and princesses. In nineteen ninety-one, Donald Graham replaced his mother as publisher and the chief official of The Washington Post Company.  At that time, the company was valued at almost two thousand million dollars.  (MUSIC) VOICE TWO: When she was eighty years old, Katharine Graham wrote a book about her life. It was called "Personal History." She wrote about the struggles and tragedies of her life as well as the successes. She wrote about how she battled her own insecurities to move from a traditional job as homemaker to a position of power. Critics praised the book for its honesty. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in nineteen ninety-eight.  It was extremely popular. VOICE ONE: Katharine Graham died of head injuries three years later after a fall. She was eighty-four. More than three thousand people attended her funeral. They included many government and business leaders.  Friends of Katharine Graham said she would be remembered as a woman who had an important influence on events in the United States and the world. They said she used her intelligence and bravery to improve the American media.  And they said everyone who cares about a free press would greatly miss her. Katharine Graham once wrote: "A world without newspapers would not be the same kind of world." After her death, the employees of The Washington Post wrote: "A world without Katharine Graham will not be the same at all."                                (MUSIC) VOICE TWO: This Special English program was written by Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Doug Johnson. VOICE ONE: And I'm Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.