A letter to the publisher of the Washington Post

[In 1989, I was invited to a community meeting called by Donald Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. I was unable to attend, but I wrote Graham a letter, part of which follows – Sam Smith]:

Dear Don: I imagine that you could write down today a list of the major concerns that will be brought up at the meeting. These concerns haven’t changed much over the years; they need not so much discovery as response. I am of two minds on this matter. On the one hand I have come to accept the wisdom that one should never try to teach a pig to sing — it doesn’t work and it annoys the pig. On the other hand, I have sensed enough wistful desire on your part and enough frustration on the part of members of your staff to cling to the hope that there remains potential of change.

Let me suggest a slightly different way of looking at the problem that might help to free that potential:

The Post controls the opening minutes of each day in the lives of over a million Washingtonians. Barely removed from our sleep, we pick up our cup of coffee to read the Post. Spousal conversation at that point in the diurnal cycle is in no small part determined by the Post. Our children soon catch the spirit. My younger son, for example, has come to believe that asking for the sports pages is an adequate substitute for saying good morning to his parents. And what are we doing as we sit there glazing our fingers with your ink? At one level we believe we are educating ourselves. But at another, and very important level, we are developing an impression of the day and of our city that will affect our mood, our conversation and our actions for the hours to come.

And how does the Post serve us at this critical juncture? What sort of day and city does it prepare us for? Basically it says to the reader: you are about to go out in a city which has a wealth of problems that you can’t solve, pleasures which you’re not important enough to partake of, and people who, when they are not just being dull, are deceitful, avaricious or mean.

Some years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Daily News in order to select a column by Chuck Stone for reprinting. I discovered a curious thing happening to me. I began reading the paper for pleasure. It dawned on me that here was what I was missing in Washington as filtered by the Post: a real city with terrible, wonderful, funny and contentious things happening to real people. The obituarist ran long obituaries of ordinary but interesting people. The columnists fought with each other. The editorials displayed human emotion rather than the bureaucratic consensus of an editorial committee. Most of all, people in Philadelphia, one gathered from the Daily News, were meant to have fun. Further, they had rights that were not to be intruded upon by crime, bureaucratic idiocy or other forms of venality. In short, the paper, written from the reader’s perspective, projected a city that was worth facing, enjoying and fighting for.

In contrast, the Post seems at times almost maniacally determined to drain the life out of the city. What remains is a bureaucratic memo on the last 24 hours from the perspective of that small minority of people who wield power in this town.

So if I had been able to come to your meeting I would have accused you of being a wet blanket on my mornings and, by consequence, of the rest of the day. To my mind, this is as serious a charge as one can make against a daily newspaper.

I think this is so not because Post writers and editors are inherently dull, indifferent, or lack humor or emotion. Many, I have found, consider themselves more prisoners than collaborators. I think the problem stems from the fashion in which the Post attempts to rule, benignly and with noblesse oblige, from its monopoly position. Its methods, as I understand them, are not strikingly different from those of McDonald’s, that is to say they depend in no small part on quality control. This control, aimed at preventing bad things from happening, has the inevitable result of preventing a lot of good things from happening as well. You end up with a product not unlike Muzak, in which both the low and high pitches are removed leaving the listener with the bland middle range.

This may strike you as inevitable, but I would suggest a way out of the dilemma. Give up some control. If you insist on acting like gods, your task will inevitably be futile, contentious and ultimately unrewarding. The community will come periodically and dump magazines on your doorstep or plead earnestly and vainly at your dinners. And nothing will happen. You will remain read and disliked.

Imagine, however, a Post which did not take upon itself the god-like task of blending and compromising all the different views, currents and spirits of the city. A Post that decided instead to be a stage upon which the city acted out its own play. A Post in which columnists did not have to go running to Benjamin Bradlee to defend their right to say something controversial. A Post that found Style in people who earned less than six figures, or in people we could emulate rather than scorn. A Post in which politics was theater as well as process. A Post in which what Benjamin Franklin referred to as the little felicities of every day were reported as well as the great strokes of the mighty. A Post that did not wait for the downfall of a mayor to report the other voices and other ideas in the city. A Post in which one could expect to find both the joy and danger that awaited when one left the house in the morning.

You could not describe such a Post in a memo because its direction would not come from management or editorial decisions but from the vitality of the city itself. The same million stories that were out there in Front Page days are still out there waiting for the Post to cover them.

It would not be orderly. But there is no objectivity in creating journalistic order out of the anarchy of a city. No fun or wisdom either.

In short, my advice would be to abdicate as priest, broker, mediator and civic Cuisinart. Just be in the news business. It’s a fine trade and all too few people practice it these days.

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