Katharine Graham, the revered former publisher of The Washington Post, famously told an interviewer that she wasn’t particularly comfortable in her lofty perch.
“I think a man would be better in this job I’m in than a woman,” she said. And she found it hard to imagine a woman serving as top editor of the newspaper.
Well, that was 1969. In the years that followed, Graham would grow into her own power and inspire a generation of leaders and journalists, especially young women. Her autobiography was admirably candid about her insecurities and how she overcame them.
More than half a century later, Sally Buzbee was named executive editor of The Post last week, making history as the first woman to hold the role, following such renowned editors as Ben Bradlee, Len Downie and, most recently, Marty Baron.
And, although it’s now routine for women to hold high-ranking posts in journalism, it’s still significant. And, for me, at least, a thrill.
Not because I expect Buzbee to bring some sort of clichéd “woman’s sensibility” to how she approaches the job, or to her news judgments, but because her appointment is such a symbol of all that’s changing in journalism — and an encouraging sign about all that still needs to change.
The benefits of diverse leadership can be subtle and hard to pin down. But they are real. They have to do with one’s formed-in-the-crucible understanding of the validity of various points of view, particularly those of “the other.” They have to do with mentoring staffers of all ages, races and genders. And with openness to approaches that, even in an industry that can be hidebound, aren’t “because we’ve always done it that way.”
That’s what makes this moment so encouraging, as the guard changes at some of America’s largest and most influential news outlets.
Kevin Merida, who is Black, has just been named editor of the Los Angeles Times; Dean Baquet, also Black, is the editor of The New York Times. Nicole Carroll is the ranking editor of USA Today.
It’s heartening because while newsrooms as a whole have become more diverse over recent decades, that gender and racial diversity hasn’t easily made its way to the upper reaches of mastheads, nor always translated to pay equity or equal opportunity.
Those top leaders were coming, we used to hear, along with the reforms. They were “in the pipeline.” The pipeline seemed awfully long.
There is, of course, no reason to think that a female leader is, by definition, an enlightened leader. Suzanne Scott is the CEO of Fox News, but I haven’t noticed any improvement there since her appointment in 2018. The network’s tolerance for racism and misinformation, especially from its prime-time rainmakers such as Tucker Carlson, has only sunk deeper into the muck.
And, to be sure, the most important thing about Buzbee is not her gender. It has much more to do with how she’ll manage the journalistic challenges of this fraught moment in American history.
A longtime Post subscriber in Virginia, one of my regular correspondents, had something to say about that in a recent email about the appointment: “Does she understand — really understand — that … the United States is on track to become functionally an authoritarian White Christian nationalist state in the very near future? And if the answer is ‘Yes,’ what is she prepared to do about it?”
“Right now,” he added, “nothing else signifies.”
There are others, too, with doubts about whether Buzbee’s gender really amounts to diversity at all, especially at this time of overdue racial reckonings in society and newsrooms. This accompanies a measure of disappointment that Merida, a former Post managing editor who is particularly popular and well-respected, was often mentioned as a candidate for the Post editorship but, by all accounts, never among those strongly considered.
Buzbee has a stellar reputation as a journalist and newsroom leader; her appointment brought accolades from those who worked with her at The Associated Press, where she began in 1988 and rose to the top editing job.
It’s telling that she succeeded another pathbreaking woman, Kathleen Carroll, in that role at the AP.
When I was named the first woman editor of The Buffalo News, a women’s group in the city sent congratulatory flowers with a card alluding to the so-called glass ceiling that had kept women from ascending: “We hear the sound of breaking glass.” It was my privilege to make a little history, but a far greater one to appoint Lisa Wilson, a Black woman, to run our sports department; to hire Dawn Bracely, another Black woman, to join our editorial board; and to promote Rod Watson, a Black editor, to newsroom management. All were firsts.
As Maria Ramirez, of El Diario, the Spanish online newspaper put it in a recent column about Buzbee, “those who arrive must hold the door for those who follow if they do not want to be an exception.”
Sally Buzbee has huge challenges ahead, no doubt. She seems to have everything she needs to successfully confront them — and to hold the door open wide.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.