Sally Quinn’s essay last week in the Washington Post, arguing effectively that dinner parties in Washington are over because—it seems—no one invites her to dinner anymore stirred up quite the hornet’s nest on the Internet.
Yet reading David Sanger’s new book, Confront and Conceal, it’s clear dinners still happen in Washington. Hushed, insightful dinner conversations come up repeatedly in his reporting on the Obama administration. It’s striking, actually, to see reference after reference to meals at which power brokers broke bread with Sanger and provided the inside story of how the 44th President was beginning to learn the levers of power.
There’s a private dinner at Lincoln’s summer cottage with Robert Gates (p. 32), a dinner at the G-20 in Pittsburgh where officials first pulled back the curtain on the Iranian nuclear facility at Qom (p. 181), and a 2011 dinner (p. 412) with “the prime minister of one significant American ally,” during which the leader said to Sanger, “Ten years ago, the first question any Southeast Asian leader would ask is, ‘How will this play in Washington?’ For the past few years, it’s been, ‘How will this play in Beijing?’” And that doesn’t even count the series of dinner discussions National Security adviser Tom Donilon has evidently been conducting with his Chinese counterpart (p. 396).
Maybe the bigger issue is that metaphorically, no one invites the Washington Post to dinner anymore. There was a time, as Quinn relates in grand fashion, when the dinner table of Katharine Graham was the most elite place to be in Washington. Yet last week the Post celebrated in grand style the 40th anniversary of Watergate, Washington’s defining modern scandal, against a backdrop that seemed to emphasize how sidelined it’s become in the modern Washington discourse.
Notably, amidst the Obama administration’s controversial war on leaks, none of said leaks involve the Washington Post. The New York Times has seen a steady drip of leak investigations—most recently major scoops on Stuxnet and President Obama’s “kill list” by Sanger, Jo Becker, Scott Shane, Charlie Savage, and James Risen, among others. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal and the Baltimore Sun have been involved in going to bat for Siobhan Gorman in a case involving NSA staffer Thomas Drake. The AP is under fire for its reporting on operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen. Fox News’s James Rosen is caught up in the prosecution of alleged leaker Stephen Kim.
As far as we know so far, the Post has remained on the sidelines, its “scoops” evidently not worth either protecting in the administration’s eyes or getting Congress worked up over. To add insult to injury, Wikileaks last year partnered with the Post only after its other media relationships fell apart.
No matter how many times Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli argues otherwise, the Post is a shadow of what it was under Sally Quinn’s husband, Ben Bradlee. “The Washington Post is haunted by its history,” Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison concluded this spring. “The mythology of the Post was always grander than the reality.”
And that reality is getting darker.
This year, for the first time since at least 1995, the Post not only won no Pulitzers, but it wasn’t even a finalist in any categories. Its talent pool seems more shallow with each passing year. The Post just completed its fifth round of buyouts, with the goodbyes and “cakings” unfolding through an increasingly demoralized newsroom that’s already seen the departure of two of its top leaders, Raju Narisetti and digital guru Katharine Zaleski, in recent months.
In the past 15 years, at least 15 journalists who have won Pulitzer Prizes at the Washington Post chose to leave. James Grimaldi, the most recent escapee, moved to the Wall Street Journal. The others departures include Anthony Shadid, Jo Becker, Barton Gellman, Len Downie, Kate Boo, Rick Atkinson, Robin Givhan, Stephen Hunter, Henry Allen, Tim Page, Sue Schmidt, R. Jeffrey Smith, Steve Fainaru, and Steve Coll.
Beyond that list, John Harris, Jim VandeHei, and Mike Allen left to start Politico, starting a whole new conversation and a new institution from scratch that is out-hustling the Post on a seemingly daily basis in its core area of politics. Profile master Mark Leibovich won a National Magazine Award in one of his first years after leaving the Post for the Times Magazine. Brauchli’s leadership style even led Howard Kurtz, a reliable scoop machine, to depart for Newsweek/Daily Beast, where he’s now the Washington bureau chief. Just weeks ago, the Post’s Polk Award-winning foreign correspondent Leila Fadel left for NPR, as part of its overseas expansion.
NPR will soon overtake the Post internationally by opening its 18th foreign bureau in Brazil. Domestic bureaus? The Post gave those up entirely three years ago.
Coll, the former managing editor, told Vanity Fair this spring that he left because if he had stayed, he “was going to be managing decline, and that didn’t interest me.”
There are still some great reporters at the Post (Greg Jaffe and Joby Warrick are both great national security reporters, for instance) and the paper is still making attempts to rebuild its bench—yet with varying degrees of success.
In his February buyout announcement, Brauchli wrote to the staff, “The Post’s Newsroom remains formidable, and we will continue making tactical hires so that even as we get smaller, we get stronger.” Leaving aside the fact that few in the newsroom believe the bluster anymore, in Brauchli’s first high-profile recruiting attempt after that memo, going after the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber, the Post editor was politely rebuffed.
New managing editor John Temple is carrying many Posties’ hopes that he can begin to turn things around. Now the Post is hiring a new enterprise editor who, in Brauchli’s words, “we believe will lift the ambition, quality and impact of our journalism, across the newsroom and across platforms.”
Let’s hope Temple and the new enterprise editor can help the paper get invited to dinner again.