Influential Media Lawyer and Former Post Executive, John B. Kuhns, Passes Away at 77

Boston, Massachusetts – John B. Kuhns, a prominent media lawyer known for his role in advising The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, has passed away at the age of 77. Kuhns, who later became a top executive and newspaper publisher in New Hampshire, died on February 20 at a hospital in Boston. His wife, Janet Milne, revealed that complications from the flu, on top of his ongoing battle with hereditary kidney disease, led to his untimely demise.

Throughout his life, Kuhns demonstrated a deep passion for both law and journalism. He served as the editorial page editor of his high school newspaper in Omaha and became an influential editor at the law review while attending Yale Law School in the early 1970s. It was during this time of vigorous courtroom debates and media challenges to powerful institutions that The New York Times and The Post published the classified Pentagon Papers in 1971, despite the Nixon administration’s attempts to obtain an injunction against these news organizations. The following year, in the landmark case of Branzburg v. Hayes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that reporters did not enjoy constitutional protection from being compelled to testify before a grand jury, marking a significant development in the area of confidential sources.

After graduating from law school in 1972, Kuhns joined the prestigious firm Williams & Connolly, which had recently been hired by The Washington Post as outside counsel. Working under renowned trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, Kuhns specialized in providing advice on matters such as libel and invasion of privacy. He played a crucial role in negotiating ground rules with prosecutors when reporters were forced to testify before grand juries, effectively safeguarding their ability to protect confidential sources.

Kuhns’ expertise and dedication garnered the trust of Benjamin Bradlee, the charismatic executive editor of The Washington Post, who steered the paper through the challenging times of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Bradlee once remarked that Kuhns “always loved the reporters and loved representing reporters in libel cases.” Kuhns eventually became a partner at Williams & Connolly and extended his legal services to other media organizations such as Newsweek, National Geographic, and Harper’s magazine.

In 1982, Kuhns made a career shift and joined The Washington Post as the director of business planning. He played a significant role in the launch of the paper’s National Weekly edition, which aimed to expand its readership nationwide before the advent of digital media. Over time, he assumed increasing responsibilities within the newsroom, becoming the deputy managing editor in charge of finance, personnel, and administration. Eventually, he held the title of vice president in charge of personnel, a position that entailed overseeing labor relations.

In 1988, Kuhns left The Washington Post and went on to become the publisher of the Valley News, a prominent newspaper serving the Upper Valley region along the New Hampshire-Vermont border. He held this position until 2008 and also served as the board chairman of Newspapers of New England, the parent company of the Valley News and other newspapers, including the Concord Monitor.

Born on January 28, 1947, in Omaha, Nebraska, Kuhns hailed from a family with a strong connection to the legal profession. His father, a corporate lawyer, counted the city’s World-Herald newspaper among his clients, while his mother was a homemaker and violinist. Kuhns graduated from Stanford University in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in history. In 1992, he married Milne, who currently serves as a law professor at the Vermont Law School.

Kuhns’ commitment to journalistic integrity and his belief in the power of assertive journalism extended even to the community level. As the publisher of the Valley News, he encouraged his reporters to produce stories that challenged the status quo and took on influential organizations. One of the paper’s proudest moments was the award-winning 2001 series titled “The Other Side of the Valley,” which shed light on the economic divide within the community by chronicling the struggles of four families. Kuhns provided the necessary resources and support to his reporters, establishing a culture of fearless reporting.

John B. Kuhns will be remembered as a lawyer with a journalist’s heart, who dedicated his career to defending the freedom of the press and paving the way for impactful reporting. His contributions to media law and ethics will undoubtedly leave a lasting legacy.