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Her dedication to the First Amendment was unsurpassed

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 4.

By Jack Nelson

Katharine Graham, a long-time supporter of the Reporters Committee, was about as close to being a First Amendment absolutist as you could find among American publishers.

She had such strong views about press freedom that the Supreme Court’s Pentagon Papers decision that other publishers hailed as a major First Amendment victory did not entirely satisfy her.

To her, even though the decision denied the government the right to restrain The Washington Post from printing the documents, it was “no ringing reaffirmation of First Amendment guarantees.” Buried in details of the opinions, she pointed out, were views about possible criminal prosecution that might be taken after publication. Although no criminal charges were ever brought, she fumed over the fact the views about prosecution made The Post labor under the threat of repercussions for months after publishing the papers.

She was a fierce First Amendment advocate who talked of the amendment being strengthened by “exercise” long before she became known as one of the nation’s most powerful publishers. And in a city where journalists often become “insiders” and rub elbows with top officials in their search for news, she was proud that by their aggressive reporting some Post and Newsweek staffers no longer found themselves “insiders.” In a speech 35 years ago, she said, “if we must jeopardize contacts and friendships alike to publish a true and valuable story, or to pursue our editorial conviction with vigor, then there can be no hesitation.” In her view, “better no sources at all than a single story which knowingly misleads . . . .”

After Janet Cooke of The Post was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a story she later admitted was a hoax, Mrs. Graham expressed concern that newspapers might overreact to the incident and not fully exercise their First Amendment rights. Speaking of the incident at the American Newspaper Publishers Association in 1981, she said, “One real danger . . . is that we will become so nervous we will go to the other extreme and not do the job that a free press is supposed to do.”

Over the years she spoke at many forums dedicated to a free press and she was a generous contributor to First Amendment causes.

The Philip L. Graham Fund Mrs. Graham established in honor of her husband has been a long-time contributor to the Reporters Committee. In 1979, the Fund contributed $10,000 to the Committee toward establishment of a Federal and State Freedom of Information Service Center.

In 1973, Mrs. Graham sent the Committee, then only three years old and operating on a shoestring, a $500 check sent to her by Arthur Kobacker, a Brilliant, Ohio, businessman who had learned that he was on the White House “enemies list.” Along with the check Kobacker sent a letter saying it was in gratitude for The Post’s Watergate scandal reporting and asking that she contribute it to an organization of her choice. “My family and I, as well as millions of other Americans,” he wrote, “can sleep more soundly because of what you have done and because we know that there is a person like you at the head of a newspaper like The Washington Post protecting our liberties.”

In a letter of reply, Mrs. Graham said she was sending the check and a copy of his letter to the Committee’ “so they may know the spirit in which it was given. They do very good work in fighting all these legal battles and are a distinguished group of men.”

Mrs. Graham herself did exceptionally good work in fighting legal battles in the Pentagon Papers case and in other cases where she stood up to government threats to a free press. Throughout her career she set an exceptionally high standard of journalism for other newspaper publishers, one based on covering the news without fear or favor and without letting the bottom line interfere with that mission.

Jack Nelson, Chief Washington Correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, was a founder and long-time Steering Committee member of the Reporters Committee.