There is a terrific movie in theaters these days. It’s called The Post.
Most folks believe it’s about The Washington Post and its reporting on the Pentagon Papers – news coverage that exposed deceit, misrepresentation and outright lying about the Vietnam War through four presidential administrations.
But that’s not the heart of the movie.
It’s a movie about business, about women in business, and about the difficult decisions that come with the territory of being the key decision-maker at a business. I recommend it as a case study for business people.
Katharine Graham, the Post’s longtime owner and publisher, is at the center of the story. For me, the story resonates in its portrayal of the isolation that can come with being a newspaper publisher.
Newspaper publishers often can get caught between powerful people who are their friends, including politicians at all levels, and the paper’s newsroom. The news folks are the fulcrum of our business. Hovering over most of a publisher’s decisions is the First Amendment, along with its cousin, the public’s right to know.
On certain days, a newspaper publisher can alienate virtually all of his or her constituents.
As I said, isolating.
I knew Mrs. Graham and had occasion to dine with her a time or two. My good friend, the late Russell Wiggins, was editor of the Post before Ben Bradlee, and he retired to Maine to own and run the best weekly newspaper in this country, The Ellsworth American. In Bradlee’s autobiography he said that Mrs. Graham told him there was only one editor she loved: Russ Wiggins.
What struck me about Mrs. Graham – and later her son Don, who succeeded her as publisher – was her extraordinary loyalty to Wiggins. She donated money to the local YMCA in Ellsworth when it was named for him. And on a nasty New England night not fit for flying she flew to the tiny town of Ellsworth for the naming ceremony and a small dinner afterward.
Her kindness, intelligence, courage and loyalty permeate the film’s message.
Mrs. Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, turned the Post over to her husband, Phil, which turns out to have been a condescending insult to her. But perhaps his decision was more a product of the times than the deliberate thought that a woman, particularly that woman, could not run a business.
Phil Graham was apparently brilliant but suffered from depression and in 1963, at the age of 48, he killed himself with a 28-gauge shotgun.
Katharine Graham took over – and run the business she could, ultimately taking the company public, facing down a near-crippling strike by the pressmen’s union and then risking it all and perhaps jail time for publishing the now infamous Pentagon Papers, a cache of documents that exposed the deception of government officials who sent young men to die in a war our presidents knew could not be won.
On top of it all, members of these four administrations constantly lied to the American people – probably none more that Robert McNamara, the former auto company executive who served as secretary of defense under Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson,
McNamara was a close personal friend and confidant of Mrs. Graham and when she gave the OK to publish the Pentagon Papers she was unmasking him as a liar.
There is inspiration for journalists in the movie because in this world of often mindless immediacy and fluff in the media, The Post reminds us of our duty to investigate and report on government so that the public is served.
The movie devotes plenty of time and attention to the workings of journalism but The Post is more than a “newspaper movie” – it is the story of Katharine Graham, a woman in a man’s world, a story that shines a light on the courage and resolve needed to make difficult, sometimes risky, business decisions.
One of my favorite stories of my business career comes from the early days of buying the Business Press. We had a terrific editor, Steve Roth, and when I told him I was hiring a publisher to run the paper he said something like, “That’s fine with me. We have had several and quite frankly we’ve never understood what a publisher does.”
It was funny and I appreciated the sarcasm and doubt. It’s a job that is not easily described and often is done poorly.
This movie about Katharine Graham reveals the tightrope a publisher sometimes has to walk – and shows how it can be walked extremely well.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at email@example.com