Fred Hiatt: As the Washington Post editorial page editor, he expanded the global reach of the newspaper’s opinion writers

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Fred Hiatt, Washington Post editorial page editor, dies at 66”:

Fred Hiatt, a onetime foreign correspondent who in 2000 became The Washington Post’s editorial page editor and greatly expanded the global reach of the newspaper’s opinion writers in the era of 9/11, the election of Barack Obama and the destabilizing presidency of Donald Trump, died Dec. 6 at a hospital in New York City.

He had sudden cardiac arrest on Nov. 24 while visiting his daughter in Brooklyn, said his wife, Margaret “Pooh” Shapiro, and did not regain consciousness. He had been treated for heart ailments in the past.

Mr. Hiatt was one of Washington’s most authoritative and influential opinion-makers. For two decades, he either wrote or edited nearly every unsigned editorial published by The Post — more than 1,000 a year — and edited the opinion columns published on the paper’s op-ed page and website. He also wrote a column and was a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing.

“Over the past two decades, Fred’s leadership made The Post’s editorial page into the most consequential in the news industry,” Washington Post publisher and chief executive Frederick J. Ryan Jr. said in a statement to the staff. “A 40-year veteran of The Post, he built friendships throughout the company and made immense contributions as a writer, an editor, and a mentor to so many across the organization. His legacy also spans the globe: Few journalists have rivaled his idealism and complete dedication to the causes of democracy and human rights worldwide.”

Mr. Hiatt joined the editorial page in 1996, after 15 years as a Post reporter covering regional politics and national security and serving as a correspondent in Tokyo and Moscow. In 2000, he took over the editorial page after the death of Meg Greenfield, who had guided the section for two decades, and an interim period when it was led by Stephen S. Rosenfeld.

Mr. Hiatt inherited a staff of about a dozen people whose cloistered, quasi-judicial manner of working had changed little in decades. They mulled over the issues of the day and prepared unsigned editorials that reflected the newspaper’s institutional views on matters from presidential elections to foreign affairs to local politics and education.

Opinion writing was confined largely to two pages at the back of the first section of the print newspaper: the editorial page on the left-hand side, with editorials, cartoons and letters; and columns from contributing writers on the “op-ed” page on the right. (The Sunday Outlook section is prepared by a different staff.)

“We want to be a page that everyone in the Washington area turns to in the morning and feels they can find some conversation going on that speaks to them,” Mr. Hiatt said soon after then-publisher Donald E. Graham tapped him to lead the paper’s editorial board.

Throughout his tenure, Mr. Hiatt patiently explained to readers, always on the lookout for bias, that the newspaper’s editorial and news departments were independent of each other. The paper’s newsgathering was and is carried out by a staff separate from his, with no overlap or coordination.

The unassuming, soft-spoken Mr. Hiatt was a protege of Greenfield, a Pulitzer Prize-winning dynamo who once memorably said, “There is a little Mussolini in every editorial writer. Pompous, meddlesome, pretentious, a figure of fun to everyone but himself … issuing grandiose orders that have no effect on anything at all … to which an ungrateful nation will reply, `Oh, knock it off.’ ”

Under Mr. Hiatt, the editorial board saw itself as something of a journalistic court, weighing earlier precedents adopted by the paper over the years. He sought to maintain The Post’s traditional editorial positions, which have included support for civil rights, fiscal responsibility, equality of opportunity and a muscular presence on the international stage, particularly in protecting human rights.

“On the editorial page masthead, it says, ‘An Independent Newspaper,’” Graham said in an interview. “Fred and The Washington Post editorial board were truly independent. They were not reliable supporters of any party or policy. He was trying to inform the readers, always acknowledging that there was at least one other side.”

Under Mr. Hiatt, Post editorials called on China to allow dissent and to free its political prisoners. The Post advocated in support of abortion rights, campaign finance reform, expanding access to health care and for limiting the proliferation of guns in society.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Hiatt and his chief deputy, Jackson Diehl, responded to the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center with a powerfully worded editorial that was nothing less than a call to war:

“Not since Dec. 7, 1941, has the U.S. homeland sustained such an aggression. The nation responded then without panic but with iron determination to defend itself and punish the aggressors. The response today must be as decisive — to the mass murderers who planned and carried out the attack, and to any nation or nations that gave them shelter and encouragement.”

At the end of the 1,100-word editorial, the writers returned to the analogy of the Pearl Harbor attack that led to U.S. involvement in World War II, quoting President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

Two years later, after members of the administration of President George W. Bush cited evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction — evidence later shown to be false — The Post’s editorial board joined an increasingly loud chorus calling for a military invasion of Iraq.

It was a view shared at the time by senators of both major parties, including future presidential candidates John McCain (R-Ariz.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.). There were reports, including in The Post, casting doubt on the claims that Iraq had nuclear weapons, and detractors chided Mr. Hiatt for helping lead the march to war.

Over the next few years, Post editorials periodically reassessed the situation in Iraq, with increasing skepticism, but Mr. Hiatt remained a target for those who criticized the U.S. incursion, which ultimately killed more than 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

“Hiatt has turned the paper into a megaphone for unrepentant warrior intellectuals,” commentators James Carden and Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in the National Interest in 2014, linking him to the saber-rattling of neoconservative hawks in the Pentagon and White House.

Years earlier, a participant in an online chat had asked Mr. Hiatt if he was a neoconservative.

“I don’t really know what the term means,” Mr. Hiatt replied.

“In general,” he added, “The Post is — and always has been, long before I was editor — in favor of a strong defense and an America that is prudently engaged in the world, on behalf of stability, democratic values, the free flow of commerce. Is that neoconservative?”

An eye for talent

Soon after Mr. Hiatt became editorial page editor, the growth of the Internet began to shrink The Post’s bottom line, leading to staff cutbacks through buyouts and early retirements. But the paper’s expanding online presence created new opportunities as readers showed an almost infinite appetite for opinion writing on politics and other subjects.

Mr. Hiatt offered to resign after The Post was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2013 but was asked to stay on. The paper’s fortunes turned around, and by 2021 the editorial department’s staff — all hired and supervised by Mr. Hiatt — had grown to more than 80 people. In addition to columns and editorials, the staff produces long-form essays, videos and podcasts. Opinions account for a substantial portion of The Post’s online readership and are often among the website’s most-read articles.

Three columnists won the Pulitzer for commentary under Mr. Hiatt’s guidance: Colbert I. King in 2003, Eugene Robinson in 2009 and Kathleen Parker in 2010.

“Fred had just an incredible eye for finding and nurturing talent,” Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor and a columnist, said in an interview. “He made a decision to do most of his work as a manager, as a leader, as a convener of talent, as a mediator. He had great energy behind the scenes.”

Among the columnists and editorial writers hired by Mr. Hiatt were Robinson, Parker, Marcus, Dana Milbank, Jonathan Capehart, Catherine Rampell, Karen Attiah, Karen Tumulty, David Von Drehle and Alexandra Petri.

“There was an enormous sense of collegiality that he created,” Diehl, who was Mr. Hiatt’s deputy editor for more than 20 years, said in an interview. “He was a born leader and a natural nice guy who spread goodwill around him. It was a very happy place.”

Mr. Hiatt consciously sought a left-right balance among contributors and brought in such conservative writers as Hugh Hewitt, Henry Olsen, Marc Thiessen, Gary Abernathy and Mitch Daniels. Columnists Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson and Max Boot came to The Post as reliably conservative voices before turning against the Trump-era Republican Party.

In 2017, journalist Jamal Khashoggi began to write a column for The Post, often criticizing human rights abuses in Islamic countries and especially in his native Saudi Arabia. On Oct. 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was never seen again.

Two days after Khashoggi’s disappearance, a substantial portion of The Post’s op-ed page was left blank.

“Khashoggi’s words should appear in the space above,” the caption read, “but he has not been heard from since he entered a Saudi consulate in Istanbul for a routine consular matter on Tuesday afternoon.”

Mr. Hiatt helped prepare dozens of forceful editorials that sought to keep attention focused on Khashoggi’s death, which a U.S. intelligence report soon determined to be a deliberate killing, in which Khashoggi’s body was dismembered. The editorials pinned responsibility on Saudi crown prince and defense minister Mohammed bin Salman and rebuked the Trump administration for not putting pressure on Saudi officials.

Mr. Hiatt “led an editorial campaign to demand justice for Khashoggi,” Diehl said. “He made an effort to keep the legacy of Khashoggi alive and created a fellowship in his name” for international journalists.

After it was revealed that Khashoggi was killed by 15 members of a Saudi hit squad, one of whom had a bonesaw, Mr. Hiatt wrote a column under his own name, vividly demanding that the world hold Mohammed personally responsible.

“Why bring a bonesaw to a kidnapping?” Mr. Hiatt wrote.

“That is a question the crown prince of Saudi Arabia should be asked at every opportunity …

“President Trump should be similarly interrogated, along with the members of his team who so far seem eager to become accessories after the fact to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Three-time Pulitzer finalist

Frederick Samuel Hiatt was born April 30, 1955, in Washington and grew up in Brookline, Mass. His father was a medical researcher who became dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. His mother was a librarian.

As a student at Harvard, Mr. Hiatt wrote for the campus newspaper, the Crimson. After graduating in 1977, he worked for the Atlanta Journal and the old Washington Star. He joined The Post in 1981, after the Star folded, and initially covered Fairfax County, Va., and politics in Richmond.

He and Shapiro, his wife, went to Tokyo in 1987 as co-bureau chiefs, then in 1991 assumed similar roles in Moscow.

With the old Communist regime collapsing, Mr. Hiatt and Shapiro chronicled the jockeying for power in Russia, including Vladimir Putin’s first steps toward seizing political control in the country.

In 1992, Mr. Hiatt wrote a novel about Japan, “The Secret Sun.” He also was the author of two books for children, “If I Were Queen of the World” (1997) and “Baby Talk” (1999). In 2013, he wrote a young-adult novel, “Nine Days,” based on the real-life account of a young Chinese woman, Ti-Anna Wang, whose father was held as a political prisoner in their homeland.

Lee Hockstader, who served as a Post correspondent in Moscow with Mr. Hiatt and later on the editorial board, described his colleague as “staggeringly well read” and “equally comfortable talking about Japan, the Washington Nationals, Fed policy and Beethoven.”

In addition to his wife of 37 years, of Chevy Chase, Md., Mr. Hiatt’s survivors include three children, Alexandra Hiatt of Brooklyn, Joseph Hiatt of San Francisco and Nathaniel Hiatt of New Haven, Conn.; his father, Howard Hiatt of Cambridge, Mass.; a brother; a sister; and a granddaughter.

Members of Mr. Hiatt’s staff were Pulitzer finalists multiple times during his tenure. Mr. Hiatt was a finalist in 1999 for editorials on human rights, in 2000 for writings about the crisis in Kosovo and in 2017 for editorials that included a scathing piece written during the preceding year’s Republican National Convention headlined “Mr. Trump is a danger to America.”

Earlier, Mr. Hiatt and the editorial board had met him in person and concluded that he was singularly unfit for office. Almost four months before the election in which Trump ultimately prevailed, Mr. Hiatt wrote:

“Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew …

“The U.S. democratic system is strong and has proved resilient when it has been tested before. We have faith in it. But to elect Mr. Trump would be to knowingly subject it to threat … Mr. Trump is a unique and present danger.”

Mr. Hiatt often engaged with readers about The Post’s editorial positions, with some decrying what they perceived as its liberal bias and others lamenting what they saw as a conservative bent. He talked many out of canceling their subscriptions and pointed out that the opinions expressed in The Post were varied — and sometimes in disagreement with one another — and part of a larger exchange of ideas.

When asked in a 2008 online chat whether the newspaper would still be around in 50 years, Mr. Hiatt said, “I’m glad you’re giving us 50!”

“What I do believe,” he added, “is that there will continue to be a market for really good, serious, readable, reliable reporting and really good, serious, readable, thoughtful, unpurchased, non-yelling opinion. It’s up to us to continue doing our best to provide that, by whatever medium technology allows.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.
Also see the Washington Post editorial headlined “Fred Hiatt was an editor of surpassing integrity, intelligence, and compassion”

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