On Tuesday Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos agreed to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million after 80 years of Graham family ownership. TIME spoke with veteran Post journalist Carl Bernstein who, with Bob Woodward, uncovered the Watergate scandal. To see TIME’s interview with Bob Woodward, click here.
What singular talent did the Grahams bring to the Washington Post?
Courage…and a commitment that you see in the publication of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to not capitulate to those who would try to inhibit the important that honest reporting does.
Can you describe Katharine Graham’s impact on your reporting?
Her impact on our reporting was to say to Ben Bradlee, the future of my newspaper is to a large extent hanging on the work of two metropolitan reporters under your [Bradlee’s] supervision who are 28, 29 years old. All of a sudden we suddenly find ourselves in a titanic struggle with the President of the United States and those around him about the integrity of both our institutions. Never for a moment did she or Bradlee say let’s bring in the national reporters that Katharine and Bradlee had known a lot better than Woodward and me. So there’s that starting point…She had been a reporter in San Francisco. And she and I used to talk about this a good bit, it was some of the happiest years of her life. She understood newspapers from a reporter’s point of view. People forget that.
Is anything lost in the Grahams’ absence?
A lot has been lost in our profession, including at the Washington Post, in the last twenty years because the economic viability has been disappearing, at least the economic viability to maintain and contain to grow great reporting organizations. Only the New York Times is still standing in terms of the greatness and fullness of its editorial product. The Washington Post is much diminished in that product, though it continues to do some of the greatest reporting in the world. It’s much more selective than it used to be and the paper is much smaller and its reach in terms of its coverage is smaller. The Times, like the Post, has been a family-owned enterprise. And the family, meaning the Sulzbergers, who like the Grahams, believe passionately in the importance of their institution to the national good and to the enduring traditions of what great newspapering and great reporting is about. And theTimes has continued to do it on a scale the Post has not been able to do in the past 10, 15 years. At the same time, the economics of the Times, and this last-standing family enterprise, is precarious. My hope is that whatever Bezos does in Washington would help the Times in terms of finding a model.
I don’t know every aspect of what he [Bezos] wants to do as a newspaper owner, or as a news organization owner. He is going to be challenged by his prominence and that of the Post to do everything that he can, and there’s going to pressure on him to do it, to remake this great institution while preserving its primary function which is to report the truth. Part of reporting the truth in terms of the Post is the scale in which it is done. Not just a couple of stories every month, and the same goes for the New York Times, but day after day after day to have dozens and dozens of reporters looking into what is really going on in government, in business, in sports, in everything that a great newspaper covers.
If you are a great news organization, you can’t have the best obtainable version of the truth if your vision and your scale is reduced to a fraction of its former self.
What does Bezos bring?
I don’t know enough about Mr. Bezos to say what values he shares and I can’t be inside the man’s head. I think we’re going to have to watch and wait with him every success in using his abilities–his entrepreneurial sensibility [and] his talents–to find a way to establish an economic model that so far has eluded the business of important reporting on a large scale in the digital age. I would hope that is his primary goal. If anybody seems to me have some credentials in this regard, it’s Jeff Bezos…I don’t have any concerns about him being on the West Coast or having no newspaper experience, Katharine Graham had never been a publisher…She turned out to be one of the greatest publishers of the age…
He’s got a big learning curve ahead of him. And it’s also up to people like me to be as helpful to him as possible.
This is an institution that I love and that is hugely important to anyone who cares about journalism. Its long term prospects are vital to not just people who care about reporting and journalism, but also people who care about the American system and how it functions. And especially given the fact that this is a Washington institution in a capital that has ceased to function in a responsible way in terms of the political process.