The Power That Is

The Pillars of the Post: The Making of a News Empire in Washington By Howard Bray W.W. Norton and Co. $11.95

THE BOARDROOM IS HUSHED, awed. The lines on the charts seem to have a life of their own, surging with an organic vitality, up and up. the lines are profits, big profits. And there is a woman, "a tall, slender woman dressed in a simple manner," She is Katherine Graham. This is the Washington Post.

And so begins this latest account of the (pick your adjective) stupendous, meteoric, miraculous rise of Washington's only morning newspaper. The celebration and meticulous telling of that newspaper's story is now practically a publishing category of its own, perhaps soon to be a new shelf in bookstores: "Cooking," "Jogging," "Post." Yet the writers of these tomes, for all their attention to the detail of personnel changes and serious analysis of every merger and serious analysis of every merger and acquisition, avoid the most salient factor in the Post's rise.

When Eugen Meyer, a Wall Street financier, bought the Post in 1933 for $800,000, the population of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., was about 650,000. Forty five years later, when The Pillars of the Post ends, the population is about 3.1 million. And the make-up of the population, and that of the surrounding suburbs, is a newspaper publisher's dream. Once a sleepy, sort-of-Southern, closes-at-six town, Washington grew to an enormous and affluentmetropolis. Its slums remain vast and the poverty within them intractable, but in the areas that matter to a newspaper publisher, Washington and environs house the prefect audience for an advertiser-hungry concern. Forget New York's Westchester and even San Francisco's Marin; the county with the highest per capita income in the nation is Montgomery, Maryland. Just the real estate ads from these booming suburbs could have kept the Post in investigative reporters for years.

To its credit, the Post, unlike many other profitable newspapers, remained committed to fine journalism as well as splendid profits. Luckily for the Post, it never had to choose between the two; both flourished.

Putting aside Washington's growth, a handful of top-notch reporters like David Halberstam, author of The Powers That Be and Howard Bray, have burrowed throught back issues and the newsroom controversies in search of the paper's "secret." Bray's book is competent and comprehensive, but he seems satisfied to describe how the Post grew, rather than why it grew. He breezes over pivotal factors, ("As World War II sparked the rapid growth of Washington, the Post began making a little money.") in favor of boardroom trivia. The result, unfortunately, reads like a Harvard Business School Case Study with anecdotes, and, as such probably will not be read.

THE EARLY MODERN ERA of the Post was made possible by a grant from Meyer, about whom we learn little, except that he was a shrewd businessman. The highest exercise of his financial acumen came on St. Patrick's Day, 1953, when, according to Bray, he and his son closed "one of the truly great deals in American newspaper history. They set the company on the course of empire." What they did was buy the competition, the Times-Herald, a move that a less sympathetic chronicler would call monopolistic, not brilliant. Without competition, prosperity for the paper and its owners was a foregone conclusion. The Post was the only major morning paper in an expanding metropolis. And the federal government's company town ran on information. It would have taken some doing not to succeed.

The Post Succeeded. It followed the typical corporate route of domination of a single market, followed by diversification through purchases of Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and assorted broadcasting enterprises. Bray's amazement with the success of the Post, and his rhapsodies on the managerial talent of the newspaper's guiding lights are excessive and far afield from the author's area of expertise.

Bray understands the newsroom better than the boardroom. The best sections of The Pillars show, in fine style, the Post newsroom in action, especially during the machinations that led to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a story on which the despised New York Times scooped the Post. Bray also gives a fascinating and compassionate description of how the Post editorial board, led by Russ Wiggins, trusted the Best and Brightest far too long about Vietnam, almost provoking a rebellion from some staffers. Surprisingly, Bray treats Watergate, the ultimate Post journalistic coup, casually. He says the newsroom suffered an emotional letdown after Watergate, but "In time they (the editors) got the paper back on course." What that means is never clear.

Bray runs into his biggest problem, in style and content, when he describes--or does not describe--the people involved with his story. Appparently fearful of aping Halberstam's personalities-determine-all philosophy, Bray takes the other extreme and remains sketchy about the people involved.

Meyer's son-in-law Philip Graham took over the paper in 1945 and then slowly went mad. Where Halberstam wallows in the sordid story of Graham's madness, Bray plays the schoolmarm and drops clipped phrases here and there about Graham's "worsening condition" and his trips to institutions. We learn only that Graham killed himself in 1963. If a desire not to dredge up unpleasant memories for the participants in Bray's excuse (and not a very good one) for his truncated discussion of Graham, it still doesn't explain his scanty attention to the players in his drama. Perhaps he chose to limit his profiles simply because he isn't very good at them; he favors cliches like "a fascination with power" and "pinnacle of the profession," and generally feels far more comfortable with straight narrative than character analysis.

The novel closes with a masterful journalistic account of the Post's wrenching pressman's strike of 1975-76. The dispute was the prototypical '70s newspaper confrontation: automation vs. the union. In this case the union made public relations blunders, destroying some of the presses and assaulting reporters. The Post turned public opinion against the strikers and busted the union, driving it right out of business. The strike story ends like nearly every story in The Pillars: with the Post owners richer and happier, and Bray, a touch awed, delighted to tell the tale.

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