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Fred Hiatt, Washington Post editorial page editor, dies at 66

Mr. Hiatt, shown in 2011, was The Washington Post editorial page editor for more than 20 years.Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post

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 was 66.

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, who was raised in Brookline and attended Harvard University, 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 Ryan said in a statement to the staff. “Few journalists have rivaled his idealism and complete dedication to the causes of democracy and human rights worldwide.”

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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 his mentor, Meg Greenfield, who had guided the section for two decades, and an interim period when it was led by Stephen Rosenfeld.

Mr. Hiatt inherited a staff of about a dozen people whose cloistered 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.

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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.

“Fred and The Washington Post editorial board were truly independent,” former Post publisher Donald Graham said in an interview. 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.

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.

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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.

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

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 US 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,” said his chief deputy, Jackson Diehl. “He made an effort to keep the legacy of Khashoggi alive and created a fellowship in his name” for international journalists.

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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.”

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

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.

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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; his father ; a brother; a sister; and a granddaughter.