At Salon, risking the revelations of major geekery, I do just that:
Not long after The Washington Post’s twin journalistic triumphs—breaking the Watergate scandal and being vindicated after publishing the Pentagon Papers—a television show called “Lou Grant” debuted. Ed Asner reprised his role from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in a new format: an hour-long drama set inside the (fictional) downtown offices of the Los Angeles Tribune, where Grant presides as city editor. Just as the country was newly awakened to the high stakes of serious journalism, the intrepid staff of the Tribune were spotlighted on prime time, as they proceeded to “crack the city’s toughest stories,” and run into a series of unexpectedly well-rendered journalism dilemmas along the way. For five Emmy-winning seasons, each show was titled with a one-word “slug,” (a old-school tag for draft stories) like “Marathon,” “Bomb,” or “Cop.”
Nancy Marchand played the wealthy and elegant Mrs. Margaret Pynchon, the owner of the paper who took on an active role as publisher after her husband died. She was openly based on Katherine Graham, who had a similar role at the Washington Post for two landmark decades. Following Graham’s model, the Mrs. Pynchon character unfailingly comes down in support of editors and reporters, who are often vulnerable for “afflicting the comfortable.” While Mrs. Pynchon sits comfortably in her eighth-floor office, and has no training in journalism before taking on the top-dog role, she opts for ethics and good journalism even, or especially, when the paper’s integrity is weighed against business concerns. Such quiet heroism might seem the romantic stuff of mere television – except, set against the real-life Graham who was playing out the part over the show’s lifetime, it had actual solidity.
This week, for the first time in eight decades, the ownership of The Washington Post was passed not to a member of the Graham family, but to Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. For $250 million, or about one percent of his net worth, Bezos added one of the world’s greatest newspapers to his formidable portfolio. What kind of owner will he be? Will he take Katherine Graham as his idealized model, a la “Lou Grant,” or will his other business interests dilute the remaining power of a strong, if beleaguered, newspaper?