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OBITUARY

Publisher Katharine Graham Dies

Newspapers: With tough decisions on key stories, she led the Washington Post to greatness.

July 18, 2001|BETTIJANE LEVINE and J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Katharine Graham, the tough-minded media giant who led the Washington Post through the publishing minefields of the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers and ultimately became the most powerful woman in American newspapers, died Tuesday in Boise, Idaho. She was 84.

Graham sustained head injuries in a fall Saturday while on a business trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. She underwent surgery but never regained consciousness.

For many years, as the Post group's chief executive, she commanded the largest Fortune 500 company ever run by a woman. Under her leadership, the Post grew from a small, family-owned local paper to one with international influence and stature.

"She set a newspaper on a course that took it to the very top ranks of American journalism in principle and excellence and fairness. That's a fantastic legacy," said Ben Bradlee, a vice president and former editor of the Post who commented on her life and legacy at a staff meeting at the paper Tuesday. "I just say, 'Well done, fantastic job.' "

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, chairman emeritus of the New York Times Co., said Tuesday that he was deeply saddened by her passing.

"Throughout the last half of the 20th century, she used her intelligence, her courage and her wit to transform the landscape of American journalism, and everyone who cares about a free and impartial press will greatly miss her," Sulzberger said in a statement.

Another contemporary, former Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler, said it was difficult to do justice "to her contributions to this nation, to freedom of the press, to journalism and quality writing, to her role in bringing the Washington Post to preeminence as one of the world's great newspapers, and to the role of women in business."

Graham was chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co., whose holdings include the Washington Post newspaper, Newsweek magazine and various television and cable broadcast systems, along with interests in the International Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

Graham's courageous decision in a 1st Amendment battle with the government over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and her later role in backing the investigation of Watergate, established her as one of the great newspaper publishers of the 20th century.

In his book "A Good Life," Bradlee put Graham's leadership in perspective when he described the moment she gave the go-ahead to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971: "What I didn't understand, as Katharine's 'OK . . . let's go. Let's publish' rang in my ears, was how permanently the ethos of the paper changed, and how it crystallized for editors and reporters everywhere how independent and determined and confident of its purpose the new Washington Post had become."

Not long afterward, the Post burnished its reputation when it led the nation's media in uncovering the Watergate scandal. The Post was alone in its trailblazing investigative reports of dirty dealings in the White House, which led to the indictment of 40 administration officials and to the 1974 resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, who had sworn to ruin Graham if her reporters persisted.

In a Post story on Graham's death prepared for today's paper, Bob Woodward, one of the lead reporters in the Post's Watergate probe, recalled that at the height of the scandal, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger "was always telling her, 'You're wrong; this can't be.' Here's this formidable voice pounding at her, and she didn't give.

"She was the ultimate brave person, in her personal life and her professional life," said Woodward, now an assistant managing editor at the Post.

Best-Selling Author at 80

In 1997, at age 80, Graham became a first-time, best-selling author. Her autobiography, "Personal History," won a 1998 Pulitzer Prize. The sweeping saga chronicles, in Dickensian detail, seven decades in the making of a great newspaper and her rise to prominence as one of the nation's first great female executives.

Her story is set against a backdrop of political turmoil, personal tragedy and a segment of society in which women were considered no more than necessary accessories for powerful men.

Graham was a late and reluctant bloomer. Her career began at 46, in 1963, when she took over as president of the Post after her husband, Philip, committed suicide.

In the next decade, she transformed the paper from a mediocre and undistinguished journal into one that was read daily by power brokers around the world.

During about the same time span, Graham also reversed the company's corporate chaos, firing and hiring key personnel, restructuring it to become a financially stable and profitable media giant. She was the paper's publisher from 1969 to 1979, and the corporate chief executive from 1973 to 1991.

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