What Mrs. Graham’s newspaper taught me

I’ve spent more than half my life in newspapers — they’ve been my passion, my purpose, my bedrock.

The week I left newspapers, I watched the Steven Spielberg love letter, The Post, in which a lifelong hero of mine gives voice — first in a whisper — to that passion. She puts everything she has on the line for that purpose.

The week I spent my last day as a newspaper publisher, I wept as I watched Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham be braver than most can imagine for a purpose not everyone appreciates.

Although this is a personal story, it’s one that’s about all of us. Our Founding Fathers knew that the press would be as important as Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency in keeping this country free. In an era when stories critical of the government are branded fake news, an era when newspapers are diminished through economics and apathy, we need more than ever that voice reminding those who govern, that they are being watched.

Democracy is messy. Bravery is difficult. But it’s never been more important for all of us to pay attention.

I’m the daughter of a war refugee who grew up under an occupying dictatorship in Korea, with no right to an education, no freedom of speech, no free press. I’m the granddaughter of a pastor, who was nearly tortured to death by a racist, anti-Christian government without freedom of religion. I’m the niece of a women’s rights activist, put on a death list by a military dictator for advocating for democracy, in a nation without a right to assemble peaceably.

Growing up in Maryland, I first heard those family stories, the bedrock of my own bravery, as I learned about the world through the pages of The Washington Post. It was my hometown newspaper, one my parents reinforced to me was run by a woman. She was a woman with a narrative, a bedrock so different from mine, that I couldn’t imagine a connection.

Kay Graham was mythological to me.

As I watched the Meryl Streep portrayal of Mrs. Graham, I thought of the weekends our parents marched us in front of the White House, protesting two dictators, one in Korea who had forced my aunt into hiding for speaking against him, the other in Iran, a country I had to look up on a map.

“Down with Park Chung-Hee,” the 7-year-old me and my 5-year-old sister would chant for our aunt and her homeland. “Down with the Shah,” we’d chant for the protesters standing on their own bedrock of sacrifice and sorrow, our parents explaining how fortunate we were to have the right of peaceable protest.

As I watched the movie, I remembered reading the stories in Mrs. Graham’s Washington Post the year I was 8, that first “the Shah” and then Park were removed by force.

As I watched, I realized that that year, when the Shah of Iran was ousted by a revolution and Park was assassinated by the Korean CIA, my mother was older than I am now and had never seen democracy in Korea.

As I watched Mrs. Graham in The Post put her enterprise, her legacy, herself on the line for her democracy, I remembered that what replaced the Shah was worse, that I learned that not all good causes result in a good outcome — and that The Washington Post is still writing about the nightmare in Iran.

As I watched, I flashed forward two years. I pictured myself in the kitchen in my Girl Scout uniform reading on the front page of Mrs. Graham’s newspaper that President Reagan had nominated the first woman to the Supreme Court of the United States.

I whispered her name out loud, Sandra Day O’Connor.

And then I whispered, “I can be anything.”

As I watched Mrs. Graham in the movie ask adviser after adviser what to do, I jumped 35 years in my life to when I was introduced to Justice O’Connor as the publisher of the Arizona Republic. Justice O’Connor said, “I’m so honored to meet you. What (the newspaper) does is vital to democracy. … Please use your powers for good. It’s never been more important.”

As I watched Mrs. Graham whisper, “let’s publish” a story about years of government lies and deceit by people she knew, as I watched a waiting pressman hit the button about the story that could have put her in jail and destroyed her newspaper, I wept.

I wept with gratitude that her bravery became her bedrock, one that helped preserve and protect our democracy, and inspired me to try to be a little bit like her, even when I couldn’t imagine something so monumental.

I wept with thankfulness to have The Post as a reminder of what’s at stake.

In the movie, I heard Mrs. Graham whisper: “Let’s publish.” And then the Supreme Court shout: “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

I wept with hope, that others who watch her will know that journalism needs their attention, their support, their encouragement and trust.

I wept to think of the value to our freedom through supporting brave journalism, devoting your intellect to understanding the truth within the complexities, and taking care to not slip down the dark rabbit holes of lies and misdirection.

That others, standing on their own bedrock, with their own personal stories, will know that democracy is like a fragile flower. That without sun, it will wilt and die.

That others will know that so many brave individuals — my mother and aunts, my grandfather and Mrs. Graham — had helped shine a light that had nourished that democracy, and each of you can, too.

As I left the theater, and walked into the sun, I dried my tears and knew that while I had left newspapers, I hadn’t left journalism; and I’d always be a part of protecting our democracy. That it needs all of us more than ever.

You are more powerful than you know. Mrs. Graham taught me that.

Mi-Ai Parrish was the President of USA TODAY NETWORK Arizona and Publisher of the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com before becoming Sue Clark-Johnson Chair of Media Innovation and Leadership at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University this month. She was the first female and first minority publisher of the Kansas City Star, the first Korean-American publisher of mainstream media, and the first minority publisher of the Arizona Republic. She can be reached at mapstrategiesgroup.com and on twitter @publishorperish

Media innovator, teacher, do-gooder, vampire slayer, entrepreneur. Love 1st Am, democracy, truth, kindness, kale salads and coffee. mapstrategiesgroup.com

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