By Donald E. Graham
In 1961, Ben Bradlee talked Philip Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, into buying NEWSWEEK. Before Phil was willing to bid $15 million—a huge sum for our company—he wanted Bradlee to tell him if there were an editor at NEWSWEEK on whom he could, in essence, bet his company. Bradlee told him the man to bet on was a young fellow named Osborn Elliott. And just as Bradlee went on to reshape The Washington Post, Oz became the inventor of the modern NEWSWEEK and the modern newsmagazine.
It is hard for readers today to understand the inconceivable power wielded by the Time-Life empire in the early 1960s. No one in today's world of megamedia companies casts the shadow in New York or Washington then cast by Henry Luce. On to this most uneven battlefield strode Oz Elliott; soon the battle looked completely different. Oz recognized the weakness of Luce's very strong magazine. Reporters were of little importance. Newsmagazines were written in one voice, often to a political line prescribed by their editor. There were few pictures; there were no bylines; there were no columns; there wasn't much reporting.
Elliott broke every single one of those rules. He sent Joe Cumming and Marshall Frady and Karl Fleming to cover the civil-rights movement; François Sully to get in Dutch with the American authorities in Vietnam. And violating the sacred rule of newsmagazines, he gave those reporters bylines, which meant that his reporters stayed on at NEWSWEEK instead of leaving for newspapers where their work would be recognized.
He hired great critics like Jack Kroll, and great editors like Kermit Lansner, Lester Bernstein, Ed Kosner, Rick Smith, Maynard Parker and others. But it was his magazine. He edited every word, every headline, every photo caption. He was editing away last week, rewriting half of the obituary prepared by his family; he removed a phrase that said he spent half his high-school years chasing girls.
Twenty years ago, Oz and Katharine Graham sat down to talk over his days at NEWSWEEK. They recalled flying to Vietnam in 1964. They spoke of dining with Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos in Manila, and about interviewing the emperor of Japan. They remembered the jokes they told and the stories they worked on.
After an hour, Kay said, "It's time to stop," and Oz replied: "Let's do it all again."
Vernon E. Jordan
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "as life is action and passion, it is required of man to share the actions and passions of his time, at the risk of being judged not to have lived." By Justice Holmes's standard, Oz Elliott truly lived because he shared the actions and passions of his time. I have been blessed with Oz Elliott's friendship since the early '60s. And in those years, he taught me that "friendship is the medicine of life."
Oz had enormous passion for equality of opportunity and human rights. From his editor-in-chief desk at NEWSWEEK and in the field, Oz watched us march, sit in, freedom ride, boycott and go to jail.
He saw the fire hoses; police dogs and state troopers attack young civil-rights workers—black and white—marching for freedom. He heard us singing "We shall overcome, ain't gonna let nobody turn us around, lift every voice and sing, 'til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty."
And Oz dispatched NEWSWEEK reporters to the hot spots of the South to bring the nation the news that freedom and justice were on the march. The civil-rights movement got first-class coverage from NEWSWEEK because Oz chose advocacy journalism in a good and just cause. In 1967, NEWSWEEK published a cover story, compiling 1,200 interviews under the title "The Negro in America: What Must Be Done." Six years later, NEWSWEEK published another lead piece asking "What Ever Happened to Black America?" Oz put my face on the cover of that story, providing me, in the infancy of my succession to the late Whitney Young, instant legitimacy as a civil-rights leader and access to the corridors of power in the public and private sectors. I am forever indebted to him for that.
In 1992, Oz organized a march on Washington called "Save Our Cities, Save Our Children." Indeed, he was a true giant in the world of journalism where he left his indelible print. But Oz Elliott was also a community organizer and civic activist who shared the actions and passions of his time in this city and this nation that he loved so much.