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The Melodramatic and Self-Important World of Ruth Marcus

In her column earlier this week Ruth Marcus wrote this:

Don Graham’s decision to sell The Washington Post was his reverse Sophie’s Choice moment.

She had to decide which cherished child to save and which to send to the gas chamber. Don and the Graham family weren’t forced to make an anguishing choice but did so anyway. They relinquished the newspaper they love in order to protect it.

If the comparison sounds hyperbolic, you don’t know the Grahams.

Now I don’t know the Grahams–but yes, the comparison does sound hyperbolic to me. Worse, actually. I for one would feel rather awkward explaining to my children why I’d consider the choice between selling a newspaper and sending one of them to Auschwitz to be a coin flip. (To be clear, the Grahams didn’t use this analogy; Ruth Marcus did.)

Ms. Marcus herself is, she informs us, “reeling.” The announcement of the sale of the Post to Jeff Bezos is “the day our earth stood still.” And then she informs us of this:

My e-mail has been buzzing, my phone ringing, with family, friends, government officials, asking the same question: Are you okay? They don’t mean economically. They mean emotionally.

The answer: Not really. Because, at least for me, after three decades here, this is a moment at once hopeful and ineffably sad.

Enough already. I understand the attachment one can feel to an institution and to individuals in that institution. But the Post is not disappearing; it’s being sold to a new owner–an individual who is very wealthy and whom Don Graham carefully selected. This move was necessary and may, in fact, end up saving the Post from ruin.  

Ms. Marcus illustrates the melodrama and self-importance that some (certainly not all) journalists are afflicted with. They live in a make-believe world in which they fashion themselves as shining knights, truth tellers, exposers of corruption, defenders of the weak.

Now I happen to like the Post as a newspaper. I’m one of the shrinking number of people in the D.C. area who still subscribe to it. I admire some of its reporters. And they are home to some outstanding columnists. But it is hardly a sacred, flawless, and fearless institution. It is, in fact, liberal in its orientation. It plays favorites. It tends to back down from speaking truth to power when those in power are of the left. And while Don Graham in particular seems like a fine man, the mythic personality some of his employees have created around him and Katherine Graham is a bit creepy.

In explaining to the rest of us why the Grahams have created such a strong bond, we’re told a couple of stories, including this one. Fifteen years ago Marcus’s book group was reading Katherine Graham’s autobiography and they asked Marcus to invite Graham to attend. Take it away Ruth:

I send a note upstairs, preemptively apologetic. I’m sure you’re too busy. Please do not feel obliged.

Perhaps 15 minutes later, a call from her assistant. That date doesn’t work, would it be possible to do it the following week? Mrs. Graham came, and she stayed for hours. I think she enjoyed herself, but I also know that she did feel, in the best possible way, a sense of noblesse oblige.

And so like God descending from heaven to earth, the Great and Mighty Kay Graham deigned to meet with mere mortals to discuss an autobiography about Kay Graham–an event that all these years later is still seared in the memory and imagination of Ruth Marcus.

What Mrs. Graham did was a nice and commendable thing. But there’s no need to invest in that act quite the saintly meaning that Ms. Marcus has. If you want to understand some of what’s gone wrong with modern journalism, you should read Ruth Marcus’s column.


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