The Washington Post in decline

Under its stiff new management team, the Washington Post loses its luster and many of its star reporters.


Harry Jaffe
November 25, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

In the high-stakes game of capital journalism, Brian Duffy's sudden departure from the Washington Post was widely read as yet another sign that the enterprising daily that led the media through the Watergate scandal to the dethroning of Richard Nixon in 1974 is in decline.

Sure, the Post remains a great newspaper by any measure. On a daily basis it breaks stories and covers the process of government well. Its cultural critics are consistently pungent, especially Stephen Hunter, the film critic recently plucked from the Baltimore Sun. But at the leading edge of journalism in the capital, in the arena of national politics and the eternal search for corruption, the Post is dropping back in the pack. The loss of Duffy, who begins work at the Wall Street Journal this week, is another setback.

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An award-winning reporter and author, Duffy had been at U.S. News & World Report for years when the Post grabbed him and made him an editor in charge of investigative reporting. Duffy soon felt constrained by the desk job, however, and began to report and break stories, which upset reporters and other editors. Duffy let it be known he was once again up for grabs. He entertained calls from U.S. News publisher Mort Zuckerman, then the Wall Street Journal offered Duffy a job running its investigative coverage. He gave notice and walked out of the newsroom.

"This was a case of hierarchy, bureaucracy and process overlooking the obvious," says another talented former Postie. "Brian Duffy is a damn good reporter, and the Post's best bet in the breaking stories. He'll punish them in print for this."

Duffy joins a string of stars who were either ejected from the Post or who rejected offers from its editors. Mike Isikoff left in a lather three years ago after the Post hesitated to publish his groundbreaking stories on President Clinton's interlude with Paula Corbin Jones; Isikoff now beats up the Post from Newsweek. Michael Weisskopf escaped the Post for Time, where he exposed the existence of Clinton's fund-raising videotapes. Richard Berke, the New York Times' political ace, twice spurned offers from the Post. Adam Nagourney chose the Times over the Post when he left USA Today last year. And in this last game of musical desks, the Post made a play for Jill Abramson when she was a top investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Abramson brushed off the Post, then went to the Times. Duffy will take Abramson's spot at the Journal.

An investigative reporter sleuthing out reasons for the Post's loss of luster in the 25 years since Watergate wouldn't have to look far. The answer is at the top. Publisher Don Graham is a tall, lean, ruddy-faced WASP in his mid-50s. He's a very nice man who seems to be uncomfortable in his skin. Despite his vast wealth and power as chairman of the Washington Post Company, a true media conglomerate, Graham tries hard to be a common man. He shuns the trappings of power. He rides the subway when he could buy it. A dynamic leader he ain't. So when prospective reporters get the hard sell from Graham, they often come away underwhelmed.

Graham's style is especially pallid compared to the way his mother, Katharine Graham, ran the paper as publisher during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate days. Kay Graham hung out with Jack Kennedy and LBJ. She partied with Truman Capote. She stared down Dick Nixon. She still throws the most important dinner parties in the capital. An invitation to Kay's is as coveted as one to a White House state dinner.

In an interview before the publication of her memoir, "Personal History," I asked Kay Graham why her son seemed to be such a loner. "I enjoy people and mixing around," she said. "Don does it his way."

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Kay Graham's editor was the legendary swashbuckler Ben Bradlee, of Watergate fame. But Don Graham, being a regular guy, chose an executive editor in his own image: Leonard Downie Jr. A great reporter and proven journalist, Downie has never worked anywhere but the Post, so his frame of reference is circumscribed by the newsroom. Great reporters don't always make great leaders. Inside the newsroom Downie is known as a stiff, bureaucratic drone, hardly the inspirational leader who can drive troops, keep hot reporters or bring in new ones. Likewise, Downie's second-in-command, managing editor Bob Kaiser, was a respected reporter and writer, but he's a bust as a leader, widely disliked inside the newsroom.

Where Bradlee lived for "holy shit" stories, Downie is consumed by circulation rates. This may seem odd for a monopoly paper that has the highest penetration rate of any big-city daily and whose Sunday circulation is more than 1 million papers. It's not unusual when you consider the pressures on newspapers from Los Angeles to New York where editors, at the behest of publishers and Wall Street analysts, are chasing dollars rather than stories. When, for example, I asked Downie why he had broken with tradition and asked a local cable channel to bring cameras into the newsroom to broadcast interviews with reporters, he said, "To reach potential readers."

Graham, Downie and Kaiser also seem to be obsessed by race, a concern that colors the paper's coverage of the news and its drive for diversity within the newsroom. Unfortunately, the Post is losing some of its best black reporters. Despite a personal plea from Graham, Pierre Thomas, a standout covering the Justice Department, was lured away by CNN. Sports writer J.A. Adande split for the Los Angeles Times. Others are looking for escape routes.

Bob Woodward is one bright light who never wanted to escape. The famed Watergate reporter is still digging for news, pounding out stories and scooping the competition. He doesn't seem to miss his partner, Carl Bernstein. But he had begun to share a byline with Brian Duffy.

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"I wish I had wrapped my arms around him while we were reporting," Woodward told me. "I fault myself for that. We should have found a way to make it work."


Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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