Will the Rivalry Between the Washington Post and New York Times Save Journalism?
It was another day in the tit-for-tat competition between the Washington Post and the New York Times. On June 15, 2017, the Times reported, above the fold, that newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller was, in fact, investigating whether President Donald Trump had obstructed justice. The piece was smartly written and well reported, but in the fifth paragraph appeared the words newspapers include when they have been bested: “The Washington Post first reported…”
Reading that phrase reminded me of my own stint as a reporter, covering the press for the Times, from 1983 to 1992, and how those moments of being bested were an occasion for grinding teeth and frantic effort. Each paper (and in those days it was only on paper) had someone stationed at the other’s headquarters to secure the first edition and rush it to waiting editors.
I, like many of my colleagues, was sometimes awakened from a sound sleep and told I had an hour to match something that had appeared in that morning’s Post.
Not since the days of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate has the journalistic competition between these two institutions been so fierce, a gift of the Trump presidency. Since his election, both papers have published weekly, sometimes daily, bombshells about the new administration. These articles have dominated the news and
New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.
Throughout it all, editors on both sides have maintained the courtly attitudes of World War I ace pilots who saluted their adversaries even as they sought to send them spiraling to the ground in flames. When the Post reported that President Trump had revealed highly classified information in a White House meeting with Russian officials, its rival tipped its wing. “Hats off to our colleagues at the Washington Post who broke the story,” Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg told the Washingtonian.
Back and forth it has gone. The Times was credited with disclosing that Trump had demanded loyalty from FBI director Comey at a one-on-one dinner in January and that the president had asked Comey to end the Flynn investigation. The Post was first with the revelation that Trump had pressured the National Park Service to find proof of his claims about his inauguration crowd. In each case, the scoop was credited by the other team.
All this bonhomie might seem too good to believe, but the roots of the rivalry—and mutual respect—are as deep and as
The papers have always vied for stories and accolades, but if you want to put a finger on when the contest began in earnest, it must land in the 1970s, when the Times was under the editorship of Abe Rosenthal and the Post of Ben Bradlee.
Rosenthal was the youngest of six children of a Bronx housepainter who emigrated from Belarus. He was a City College boy who got his start at the Times as the campus correspondent. Though the paper was owned by the Ochs-Sulzberger family, who were Jewish, in the first half of the 20th century the family’s deep sensitivity about the paper being “Jewish-owned” meant that Rosenthal’s byline could not be Abraham. His often brilliant reporting was under the
A.M. Rosenthal and Arthur Gelb in 1967
Bradlee could not have come from a more dissimilar lineage. A Boston Brahmin by birth and temperament, he was handsome and elegant and a pal of JFK’s, and he had a distinct style that prompted Post reporters to dress like him in colorful shirts.
The families that these two men served were, like Rosenthal and Bradlee themselves, both different and similar. The Post’s publisher, Katharine Graham, had come to that position upon the suicide of her husband Phil Graham in 1963. She was the daughter of Eugene Meyer, a wealthy and well-connected Jewish financier who bought the Post when it was in bankruptcy in 1933. As a new and inexperienced publisher, she turned to Bradlee, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek—a Post acquisition.
He was so strapped for cash that he borrowed $5,000 from friends in Chattanooga—who forbade him to spend any of it. He was to put it into a bank account to impress the paper’s owners, among them J.P. Morgan.
Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham in 1971
Ochs’s plan was to make the Times a financial success and then reinvest the profits in the business, something publishers frequently promise but rarely do. But as soon as he started making money, Ochs plowed it into the company. By the ’70s the paper was in its third generation of family ownership.
Ochs’s only child, Iphigene, had married Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Their only son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger (the publisher at the time of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate), was known universally as Punch, a nickname from childhood (it paired with his older sister, Judy).
Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger at the New York City Press where the Times was printed, 1976
Punch, like Katharine Graham, became publisher because of an untimely death, in
The Ochs/Sulzbergers, as Iphigene once put it, were “not a family to have yachts.”
Susan and I interviewed family members and pored over their correspondence, and we soon learned that what set them apart then (and does, I believe, today) from other newspaper owners is that they viewed themselves as stewards of a great—indeed, essential—enterprise that is key to the country’s democracy.
An example of this commitment is how the paper treated the Vietnam War. Punch was a former marine, deeply patriotic and initially sympathetic to the U.S.’s efforts in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, the Time’s coverage of the war, especially the writing of David Halberstam, was unsparing and tough.
During the spring of 1971, Bradlee began to hear rumblings that the
These documents came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, and publishing them was a watershed in American journalism.
The Times scoop drove Bradlee nuts. “We found ourselves in the humiliating position of having to rewrite the competition,” he said in his 1995 autobiography, A Good Life. Katharine Graham described him as “anguished.” But a year later an equally seismic story—Watergate—belonged to the Post.
What began as a small piece about a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee snowballed into a series by two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, that ultimately resulted in the downfall of a president.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post newsroom in 1973
It was published, including Mitchell’s words—with “tit” excised. Later, Graham had an old laundry wringer prominently displayed in her office, a gift from her Watergate team.
The Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories prompted an explosion of investigative journalism at the Times, the Post, and numerous other publications, each vying for scoops and in the process creating some of the best and most illuminating journalism the country has ever seen. It was the beginning of an age of prosperity for the news business.
The landscape shifted in the ’90s, as digital technology began to alter how news was delivered and papers made money. The Times invested in becoming a national newspaper, printing in regional plants throughout the country and charging hefty prices for subscriptions bought by people who “had to have their New York Times.”
The Post’s management chose a different economic tack, which, for a time, was staggeringly successful. It remained, essentially, a local newspaper, selling ads to area businesses. But since DC had far fewer papers than New York, the Post had a large advertising base pretty much to itself.
There was a growing perception that the Times was moving ahead of the Post, at least in the sense that its new publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. (Punch’s son), was doubling down on journalism and willing to spend the money to do it. The extent of this investment became apparent on April 19, 1995, when Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb in Oklahoma City. Ed Walsh was in the Post’s Chicago bureau at the time and got a call from Washington in the morning ordering him to get to the scene as soon as possible.
Beating the Post felt like hitting a home run for the Yankees against the Red Sox.
Walsh took the first available flight and arrived in the
“I had been competing with the Times my whole career,” Walsh, an old friend of mine, told me ruefully not long afterward, “and this was the first time I felt we had been totally outgunned.”
The recession that began in 2007, combined with the long-term decline of print advertising revenue, was disastrous for all newspapers. In 2013 the media world was shocked to hear that the Graham family had sold the Post to Jeff Bezos for $250 million, a figure that would have been considered laughably low in the 1980s.
Bezos had no journalism credentials, but he had
Bezos instantly recognized that he had an ace at the news helm. Marty Baron is best known for having been the top editor of the Boston Globe—he was played by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight, the Oscar-winning movie about the paper’s revelations of child abuse in the Catholic Church. By general consensus, Schreiber nailed Baron’s quiet intensity and his total belief in finding out and reporting what you find.
His style is akin to that of Horatio Nelson, Britain’s great naval hero, who told his underlings to forget fancy maneuvers and go straight at the enemy. That is Marty. He was also portrayed as a workaholic who stayed at his desk very late, a habit he maintains at the Post.
Dean Baquet of The New York Times and Marty Baron of The Washington Post
His counterpart at the Times—and a good friend—is Dean Baquet, who is the first
It is easy to draw parallels between the two papers’ rivalry today and that of the Watergate era. Editors and publishers at both are relentlessly competitive but make common cause when the issue is press freedom or bullying by the White House. The publications compete for ad dollars and readers, yet they are buoyed by each other’s success.
But this generation faces different challenges and has adopted new tactics. Both are scoring their scoops not just from networks of long-cultivated sources, as we did in my day, but by soliciting tips online. Both websites carry detailed instructions on how to contact the papers without leaving a digital trail that can be traced—a true sign of the times.
The person Bezos and Baron will soon be facing at the head of the Times is Arthur Jr.’s son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, known as A.G. The 37-year-old deputy publisher is said to have been determined since childhood to make his career in the family business. In 2014 he co-wrote a 90-page “Innovation Report” that laid out, among other things, a blueprint for transforming the Times into a digital-first publication.
Arthur Punch Sulzberger and his son Arthur Sulzberger Jr. attend a
100th anniversary celebration for the New York Times on September 25, 1996.
The Sulzbergers, Bezos, Baquet, and Baron have their hands full right now. Print ad revenue continues to decline, and the newsgathering environment has gotten tougher as the White House makes frequent attacks on both publications. Despite this adversity, journalism at the papers has thrived, outshining (for now, at least) other rivals like the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.
This spring I read with interest the announcement of the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes, in particular the one for National Reporting that went to David Fahrenthold of the Post for his revelations about Donald Trump’s charities, and the one for International Reporting that went to the Times’s Russia’s Dark Arts series, investigative pieces about the ways Russia had sought to influence the West—the first revelations in what later became the scandal of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
Both are examples of top-notch journalism—as good and as important work as either paper has ever done. I couldn’t help wondering whether the writers and editors at each paper were thinking about their counterparts when they received the awards.
In 1986, I spent a week going head-to-head with the Post on a big story about the collapse of the Bingham family newspaper dynasty in Louisville, Kentucky. I won a Pulitzer for Specialized Reporting for my coverage, which was, of course, immensely gratifying.
But what I recall most about the experience was that beating the Post felt like hitting a home run for the Yankees against the Red Sox.
Alex S. Jones was the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government from 2000 until 2015.
This story appears in the September 2017 issue of Town & Country.
This story originally
Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editor.