The Washington Post: Always a Good Story

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The Washington Post's latest headquarters at 1301 K St. NW. Georgetowner photo.

“The Post,” a film coming to town on Dec. 22, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, promises to be the second Hollywood blockbuster about the Washington newspaper that, despite its turbulent history, keeps coming out on top.

From its battle with the Supreme Court over the Pentagon Papers to its rise to star-studded heights with the story of the Watergate break-in to its public embarrassment over the Janet Cooke debacle, the Washington Post has seen and done it all.

From the beginning, the Post was not shy about taking a stand on political issues. In 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president by a congressionally appointed electoral commission. The Post’s founder, Stilson Hutchins, disliked Hayes so much he never referred to him as the president.

Hutchins, who made the paper successful by focusing on national government affairs, sold it to Frank Hatton and Beriah Wilkins for $210,000 in 1889. The new owners even had John Philip Sousa write a march called “The Washington Post.” The paper was a big success until one of them died. It sold again in 1903 to John R. McLean, owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

McLean added value to the newspaper by launching local news and entertainment sections. Then his son Ned took over. Ned McLean was the husband of Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the Hope Diamond. The couple lavishly entertained congressmen and senators at their Northwest D.C. estate until Ned got ensnared in the Teapot Dome scandal. This created such a distraction that the newspaper went into bankruptcy in 1933 and sold at auction for $825,000 to Eugene Meyer.

During Meyer’s ownership, one of the Post’s two most infamous typos occurred. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt got a cold, the newspaper incorrectly announced: “FDR in Bed with a Coed.” This was only surpassed by an earlier Washington Post typo. After President Woodrow Wilson’s wife died, he became engaged to a well-known widow, Edith Galt. At one point, reporting on their attendance at an outdoor public event in 1915, the Post misprinted “entering” for “entertaining.” The story read: “The President gave himself up for the time being to entering his fiancée.”

The Post prospered for decades under the leadership of Eugene Meyer. When his daughter, Katharine Graham, took over as publisher, little did she know that the paper would break one of the greatest news stories of all time. It sent two fledgling reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to find out more about a bungled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex.

In pursuing the story, they discovered layers of intrigue just beneath the surface that reached all the way to the White House. At one point, Katharine Graham said, “If this is the great story you think it is, why aren’t any other newspapers writing about it?” Indeed, they were not, but Woodward and Bernstein kept at it, until they uncovered the scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, less than two years after he had won the greatest landslide election in American presidential history.

This success story was further magnified when Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Woodward and Bernstein in the 1976 hit movie “All the President’s Men.” The Post, its reporters, editor Ben Bradlee and Graham all became celebrities on a level not usually enjoyed by a newspaper, including their chief competitor, the New York Times.

But everything that goes up must come down. In 1980, when Don Graham, Katharine’s son, was publisher, Bradlee wanted to get more women and minorities on the writing staff. Bradlee thought he hit the jackpot with Janet Cooke, a beautiful young black woman whose resume said she had graduated from Vassar summa cum laude, had a master’s degree from University of Toledo and had already won coveted newspaper awards for her reporting.

She started writing for the Weekly section, but soon got bored and started looking for bigger stories.

Cooke saw her chance for advancement when she heard a rumor about an 8-year-old boy from a rundown D.C. neighborhood who was a heroin addict. When she couldn’t find him, she decided to invent him. She wrote a heart-rending story about this fictional boy called “Jimmy’s World,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. A few days after the prize was awarded, she was found out and forced to return the award in shame, as well as acknowledging that she lied about graduating from Vassar, her master’s and the reporting prizes.

Bradlee was terribly embarrassed, Graham made a public apology and the Post published an unprecedented 18,000-word report on how the “Jimmy’s World” debacle had come about.

The latest sale of the Post in 2013 took place when the Graham family sold to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, for $250 million, a lot more than the $210,000 it sold for the first time.

Though print media is said to be in decline, the current administration makes headlines daily with unexpected moves and unprecedented tweets, so that the Post can hardly keep up. Readership is up and two of the top Hollywood stars of all time are starring in the latest movie about the Post, detailing the newspaper’s battle with the Supreme Court over freedom of the press, an issue once again on the front page.

Donna Evers is the managing broker of Evers & Co Real Estate, a Long & Foster Company; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia; and a devoted student of Washington-area history. Reach her at devers@eversco.com.

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