“From the start, I very much wanted to write this book myself, although I realized I wasn’t a real professional.” The words above were chosen by Katherine Graham to open an autobiography she entitled Personal History. Of course, she was keen enough to enlist the help of a researcher, Evelyn Small, and an editor, Robert Gottlieb. The opening line pulls to the surface an all too familiar self-doubt that it is hard to imagine exists in some of the most successful people gracing the pages of books, magazines and newspapers. The ensuing pages account for self-doubt overcome through experiences and memories of Katherine, a past owner of The Washington Post. She tends to allow the reader to make his/her own conclusions about Katherine Graham’s ability to tell a story. Needless to say, I am meticulously making my way through the pages and details of Personal History. A book I became aware of through recent Meryl Streep interviews regarding the latest Spielberg directed move, The Post. It is inspiring to note that even with the existence of self-doubt great achievements are possible.
The Post film captures the journey of Katherine Graham as she learns of leaked top-secret information on the history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and makes a choice to allow The Washington Post to report on them, risking imprisonment, in order to maintain freedom of the press.
Katherine Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer, bought The Washington Post for $825,000 in a bid in 1933 – a paper he’d been attempting to acquire for quite some time and had previously offered $5 million dollars for! The paper was deemed a failure by the time he bought it, and he eventually passed it on to Katherine Graham’s husband Philip L. Graham. Upon Philip passing in 1963 Katherine became owner of The Washington Post. The first female CEO of a fortune500 company:
Katherine recalls her father insisting on the principles that a newspaper should uphold in 1935, and she lists them in her autobiography:
- That the first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained;
- That the newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world;
- That as a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman;
- That what it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as for the old;
- That the newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owner;
- That in the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifice of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good;
- That the newspaper shall not be the ally for any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men. (Ch3, p63)
Although Katherine states that these principles were at the “heart and soul” of her father’s convictions, “how to translate them into action was the challenge”. Little did she know that she would be put to the test with the Pentagon Papers and that her father’s sentiments would echo the principles of America’s Supreme Court to uphold the freedom of the press. In 1971, Katherine would gulp… and ‘okay’ the exposing of years of government decisions leading up to a controversial Vietnam War; in which many Americans remained deployed.
The journey of Katherine Graham was entrusted to Meryl Streep in the film The Post. An energetic journalist and Graham’s close confidant, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), encouraged the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. I woke up on Saturday morning, trekked out in the snow (and didn’t dress warm enough grrr argh), took a bus and watched the movie. I was cold and sleepy, but I am very happy I made the effort. WHO AM I KIDDING THOUGH? I’d been waiting to watch The Post and I’m a total fan-girl of all the ‘professionals’ involved in making it (gulp). It is one of those films made enjoyable because it enlightens the viewer in addition to making the viewer feel sad, and happy at times. I learned a little bit more about the world!
I left feeling the importance of a person’s ability to ‘find his/her voice’. I realized that a voice is impacted by a person’s ability to ‘know’ and that it is very interesting to watch someone strive to learn what is true (so far as what is true can be learned). I empathized with that struggle as a woman and as a citizen. The barriers to Katherine finding her voice were not financial, physical or intellectual; her barriers were environmental and in relationships. By virtue of the time Katherine was consistently spoken down to due to her gender regardless of her prominent position. I was especially struck, towards the end of the movie, at the depiction of Katherine returning to a habitual stroll among her printing machines… just getting back to work… newspapers flying on belts towards the ceiling… legally publishing government secrets!