Defining Moments of The Washington Post's 140-Year History

Daniel Hautzinger
The Washington Post published its first issue on December 6, 1877
The Washington Post published its first issue 160 years ago, on December 6, 1877

140 years ago today, on December 6, 1877, The Washington Post published its first issue: a four-page Democratic Party organ available for three cents a copy. Over the next 50 years, the newspaper switched owners every decade or so, struggling financially but growing in circulation until it was finally bankrupted under the owner Ned McLean, who had already sullied its reputation by too vocally promoting the policies of the scandal-ridden Republican president Warren G. Harding.

In 1933, the paper was bought by former chairman of the Federal Reserve (and later the first head of the World Bank) Eugene Meyer. Under Meyer and his son-in-law Philip Graham, the publication began to gain respect, especially for its editorial page, but remained an average paper otherwise (Washington’s Evening Star was more prominent in the city). It wasn’t until Katharine Graham, Meyer’s daughter and Philip’s wife, took over as publisher after Philip’s suicide in 1963 and brought on Ben Bradlee as an editor two years later that the paper began to become a national force and a rival to The New York Times. After a period of downturn, the Post, which was bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013, has recently once again become a powerhouse known for its investigative reporting, with a large digital audience and substantial digital revenue in an era of print media decline.

Look back on some of the most memorable moments in The Washington Post’s history.

John Philip Sousa’s “The Washington Post”

This popular march was written by Sousa at the request of the Post’s owners in 1889 for an essay contest awards ceremony hosted by the paper. You definitely know the tune.

The Teddy Bear

Clifford Berryman's "Drawing the Line in Mississippi"Clifford Berryman's "Drawing the Line in Mississippi" inspired the creation of the teddy bear. Image: Library of Congress

In "Drawing the Line in Mississippi," a political cartoon published in the Post in 1902, Clifford Berryman depicted President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captured bear cub. The cartoon inspired businessman Morris Michtom to create a plush bear and name it the teddy bear, after Roosevelt’s nickname. (On Tuesday, January 9 at 9:00 pm, you can learn more about Teddy Roosevelt's hunting and naturalism in American Experience: Into the Amazon.)

A famous typo

In a 1915 article about Woodrow Wilson, the Post meant to say that the President was “entertaining” his soon-to-be wife, Edith Galt. Instead, the published story said Wilson was “entering his fiancée.” The paper was quickly recalled.

Pentagon Papers

The Pentagon Papers were a 47-volume history of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967. The Papers revealed a long history of the government lying to the public about involvement in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, an analyst who had worked on the Papers, decided they needed to be leaked to the press, approaching the New York Times with portions of it in early 1971. The Times published three installments beginning June 13 but was barred from further publication by a federal court injunction, which the Times appealed.

Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham in Steven Spielberg's The Post. Image: 20th Century FoxSteven Spielberg's upcoming film 'The Post,' starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, dramatizes the Post's battle over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Image: 20th Century Fox

That’s when the Post took up the gauntlet, publishing its own excerpts from the Papers on June 18. When the government tried to stop the Post, a federal judge refused to issue an injunction. The government appealed, and on June 26 the Supreme Court heard the case along with the Times’s case. Four days later, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court allowed the newspapers to continue publication. Publication of the Pentagon Papers further turned public opinion against the Vietnam War and helped establish the Post as a rival to the Times and as a major national investigative paper. (The upcoming Steven Spielberg film The Post, starring Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, is about the release of the Pentagon Papers.)

Watergate

Having proved itself a year earlier with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Post became the major force that uncovered the Watergate scandal, in a series of 1972 investigative articles by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that eventually earned the Post a Pulitzer and was dramatized in the film All the President’s Men. While other publications initially failed to understand the significance of the scandal that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, the Post doggedly pursued the story in the face of intense White House criticism. (PBS Passport members can watch more coverage of Watergate here, in Dick Cavett's Watergate.)

The Watergate complexThe Post doggedly investigated the Watergate scandal in the face of intense White House criticism

“Jimmy’s World”

Within a decade of Watergate the Post suffered its own scandal, but, unlike Nixon, weathered it. In 1980, the paper published a shocking article about an eight-year-old heroin addict living in the crime-riddled area of Southeast Washington, D.C. Written by a young reporter named Janet Cooke, the article caused a commotion, leading Marion Barry, Washington’s mayor, to organize a search for Jimmy, the addict. Though the search turned up nothing, Barry claimed that Jimmy had been found and was receiving treatment.

Cooke won a Pulitzer for the article, but the national attention brought by the prize revealed false claims in Cooke’s resume. “Jimmy’s World” was soon found to be fabricated; Jimmy did not exist. The Pulitzer was returned for the first and only time in the history of the prize, and Cooke resigned from the paper. Author Gabriel García Márquez quipped about Cooke that “it was unfair that she won the Pulitzer prize, but also unfair that she didn’t win the Nobel Prize in Literature.”(Read the original article here.)

The Trump era

The Washington Post's new slogan, "Democracy dies in darkness"In February of this year, the Post adopted a new slogan in response to Trump's attacks on the press

The Post has once again come to the national forefront of investigative journalism and, as in the Nixon era, has once again attracted the ire of the President of the United States. Throughout the 2016 campaign, the Post aggressively reported on both Trump and Clinton, revealing falsities in Trump’s claims about his charitable foundation (a series for which David Fahrenthold won the Pulitzer Prize) and breaking the news of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about groping women, as well as reporting on the Clintons’ questionable use of their own foundation. Then in December of 2016, the paper falsely reported that Russians had hacked the U.S. electrical grid, later issuing a retraction.

But once Trump was inaugurated, they continued to break real news: about Michael Flynn, about Jared Kushner, about developments in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. In February, in response to attacks on the media and criticism from Trump, they adopted the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Most recently, they exposed an organization trying to expose them: when James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas tried to get Post reporters to pick up a fictitious accusation against Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual abuse, the Post discovered inconsistencies in the story and confronted O’Keefe. 

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