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Katharine Graham

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3. We at the Reporters Committee were…

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 3.

We at the Reporters Committee were stunned and saddened by Katharine Graham's unexpected death on July 17, which came only a few weeks after we honored her at our 30th Anniversary celebration.

The Reporters Committee has been very fortunate over the years to attract a long list of generous supporters. Only a few have been as steadfastly loyal as Mrs. Graham and the Washington Post Co.

When I took over this job in January 2000, the Steering Committee had already committed to holding a fundraiser in New York to celebrate its 30th birthday. There is an art to throwing such parties, and two things are essential: You must have the right chairman and the right honoree.

We were fortunate to have Tom Johnson, who retired as chairman and chief executive officer of CNN in June, as our dinner chairman. With Tom's help, we were able to persuade Mrs. Graham to be our honoree. This was no simple task as Mrs. Graham never sought honors or attention. But she agreed to help us out because she believed in the work we do and, as she said, because, "I adore Tom Johnson."

Our cartoon auction and dinner on May 22 at Cipriani 42nd Street was a huge success, raising almost $500,000 for Reporters Committee operations. But just as important as the money, we were able to honor a remarkable woman for the work she had done over 40 years to ensure a free and vigorous press.

One of the highlights of the evening was former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee's introduction of Mrs. Graham. In what now seems a foreshadowing of his touching eulogy, Bradlee told of her doubts during the Post's Watergate coverage, describing how she demanded of him, "If this is such a great story, where the hell are all the other papers?"

We were thrilled that she had agreed to attend the dinner and didn't expect her to do any work for the fundraiser. But she surprised us with an eight-minute speech about one of the most important issues facing American journalism today — the threat to an open court system posed by electronic filing of court records. She obviously had spent considerable time immersing herself in the topic before the dinner. (Mrs. Graham's May 22 speech is published on pages 4-5.)

Mrs. Graham was more frail than the last time many of us had seen her. As I escorted her during the pre-dinner reception, I wasn't prepared for the reaction most people had to being in her presence. Her close friends approached, but most of our guests seemed awed and speechless. She was polite and gracious to everyone, but clearly did not relish being the center of attention.

Mrs. Graham was so pleased with Chip Bok's matted and framed caricature of her that she kept insisting to me that she would be happy to pay for it. I insisted that it was the Reporters Committee's gift to her.

Only weeks later at her funeral, Bradlee, one of the Reporters Committee's founders, explained what most of us know about excellence in journalism but rarely articulate. "Maybe all of you do not understand what it takes to make a great newspaper," he said. "It takes a great owner, period." He continued, "Great owners help editors and reporters shine a bright light on the darkest corners of society."

We have worked with many newspaper owners over the years, but she was in a class by herself.

I have retained many images of the 30th Anniversary dinner, but one will stand out forever. After dinner, where she was seated with Johnson, Bradlee and Sally Quinn, Mrs. Graham seemed pleased but tired. After gathering her things, Bradlee gallantly offered his arm and said, "Well, Mums, are you ready?" She took his arm, and they regally walked to the door.

What a night.

— Lucy Dalglish