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Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr.

Leonard Downie Jr.
Executive Editor, The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 6, 2004; 12:00 PM

Each Wednesday at noon, starting Oct. 6, a member of The Washington Post's senior staff will join readers Live Online to field questions and comments about the paper. From the front page to the comics page, here's your chance to Ask The Post.

This Week:Leonard Downie Jr. was named executive editor in 1991, after serving as managing editor for seven years. After joining The Post as a summer intern in 1964, he soon became a well-known local investigative reporter, specializing in crime, courts, housing, and urban affairs. He worked on the Metro staff as a reporter and editor for 15 years, and ran the staff as assistant managing editor for Metropolitan news from 1974 until 1979. As deputy metropolitan editor, Downie supervised The Post's Watergate coverage. He was named London correspondent in 1979 and returned to Washington in 1982 as National editor. In 1984 he became managing editor. Downie is the author of four books: "Justice Denied" (1971), "Mortgage on America" (1974), "The New Muckrakers" (1976), and with Robert G. Kaiser, "The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril" (2002).

Len Downie
Len Downie
Leonard Downie Jr. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)

Downie was online Wednesday, Oct. 6, at Noon ET to take questions and comments about The Washington Post and discuss recent news.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Mr. Downie,

The question I have is a variation on the perception of media bias:

What do the editors at The Post do to ensure that a story is presented fairly and accurately to all sides of the story?

Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Good question. Each story we publish is reviewed by several editors who check for accuracy and fairness, in addition to journalistic quality. We try to hire reporters and editors who do not bring biases with them and we require them to adhere to a strict code of ethics, which, among other things, prohibits all political activity except voting.

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Boston, Mass.: Hey Leonard,
Thanks so much for taking our questions. Mine goes something like this: how does an intrepid young freelancer right out of college become the next Mary McGrory? Is the preferred route for people dreaming of employment with The Post through J-school (I know that GWU has a program with The Post), or through decades of hard work with local papers?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We hire journalists who have demonstrated through work at other newspapers or in our summer intern program for college students that they can perform journalism at our level. Some major in journalism; many do not.

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Bethesda, Md.: I saw your comments in the Howard Kurtz mea culpa article that The Post didn't need to cover the evidence against Iraqi WMD because "[readers] have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media's coverage had been different, there wouldn't have been a war."

Beginning in March 2003 (and up till today) there have been scientific polls showing that over half the country believed the ludicrous notion that Saddam was "involved in the 9/11 attack."

Given that we went to war partly on support "informed" by that misconception, I thought the media should be looking at why half of a supposedly literate country believed something no security agency had issued a shred of evidence for. I repeatedly wrote Kurtz and Michael Getler suggesting The Post examine it, but my entreaties met with dead silence. In fact the phenomenon wasn't even noted until August (after the invasion), and then only in passing. A paper unbeholden to the administration would have written the piece before the war started, and it would have noted the number of times the president had mentioned "9/11" and "Saddam" in nearly the same breath. It would have documented the recidivist name-dropping of the Atta-in-Prague canard by Dick Cheney well after the CIA had placed him in Florida at that time. It would have tried to divine why half a supposedly "awakened" country was so out of touch with basic facts.

What on earth is a newspaper for (other than to curry favor with those in power)?

washingtonpost.com: The Post on WMDs: An Inside Story, (Post, Aug. 12)

Leonard Downie Jr.: Actually, most of the information you cite was reported by The Washington Post before, during and since the war began. What I acknowledged to Howie Kurtz was that stories about dissenting views about pre-war WMD intelligence were not displayed as prominently in the newspaper as, in retrospect, they probably should have been. We are not beholden to this or any other administration.

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Lawrence, Kan.: What do you think will be the most important issue deciding November's presidential elections? Iraq? The economy?

Leonard Downie Jr.: It would be foolish to try to predict this, but polls currently show Iraq and the economy almost neck-and-neck as top issues. The economy may matter more in parts of the country where people are most concerned about jobs and income, while the war is likely to be more important in those areas where many troops serving in Iraq come from.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm currently taking a Media and Politics class and using your book "The News about the News" as a text. I was just wondering what you happen to think about the recent CBS/Dan Rather mess-up. A number of days ago, Anne Applebaum wrote an op-ed in The Post about it, saying that news anchors today really don't mean as much to the public as they once used to. I'm curious as to your opinion on this: do you feel that anchors have lost their importance in public lives, especially as technology has advanced and given us more news mediums, or do you feel that they are still seen as trusted icons never to be matched by the internet or 24-hour news sources?

washingtonpost.com: Rather Irrelevant, (Post, Sept. 22)

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks for plugging the book. I think the book is more relevant than ever, given recent news media problems. As we discuss in the book, the real problem with television news is the proliferation of news programs without sufficient staff and resources to maintain high levels of quality. As CBS has acknowledged, pending an ongoing investigation, this news report was not sufficiently vetted before being rushed onto the air. As to the anchors, none of the potential successors to Brokaw, Rather and Jennings have anything like their breadth and depth of reporting experience before they became anchors, so I do not expect expect any of the successors to have the same influence.

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Washington, D.C.: You were recently quoted in Editor and Publisher as saying the following:

"We are not judging the credibility of Kerry or the (Swift Boat) Veterans, we just print the facts."

Is this a misquote? If not, do you really believe it the job of a journalist to verify the credibility of a source prior to printing a story? How can facts be determined without reviewing the credibility of the source? I thought checking your source was the first rule of journalism?

I find this statement, if true, astonishing, and I hope you take this opportunity to correct the record.

Leonard Downie Jr.: There is a difference between judging and giving readers all the facts. We have thoroughly investigated and analyzed the claims on both sides and presented them to our readers in very lengthy, detailed stories (which you can find on washingtonpost.com) and then let our readers do the judging.

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Alexandria, Va.: Good afternoon,
Who are the current members of the Washington Post editorial board? I have searched far and wide for a listing of names and have been unable to do so. It is always frustrating to read an editorial and not know who is responsible for having written it. Why does The Washington Post keep the identities of it's editorial authors out of the eyes of readers? It seems that you have something to hide.
Thanks from Alexandria

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have a strict separation here between our editorial page (what you call the editorial board) our large news gathering staff, which I supervise. The editor of the editorial page is Fred Hiatt and the editorial writers frequently write op-ed columns under their own bylines. Their names are not a secret.

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Downtown, Washington, D.C.: Why is Dilbert in the Business Section -- and not in the Comics Section?

Thanks. I'll love the Post till I die.

Leonard Downie Jr.: What a wonderful sentiment! Dilbert is in the business section at the request of that editor to give readers of her section a laugh every morning -- and because Dilbert's subject matter is business and the workplace.

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Germantown, Md.: Any chance of getting the dead guys out of the comics page and letting new artists in?

Disclaimer (as if the lack of wit is not enough): I am not Gene Weingarten.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We're working on it, and I hope you don't even know Gene Weingarten.

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washingtonpost.com: Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete, (Post, Aug. 22)

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Len Downie,
I am currently reading your book, "News about the News," and I am wondering what is your view of C-SPAN. If you considered it to be actual journalism even though it rejects the notion to edit or analyze; can it actually be called a news organization?

Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: C-SPAN is not journalism, but it is a wonderful source of raw material for its viewers and for journalism.

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McLean, Va.: I have a question regarding the Business section. For a community that is arguably one of the greatest places to do business in the world, why does The Post place such little coverage on business news, especially local business news. The WashTech section is virtually bare, when some great things are happening in the technology community. You have great business reporters, why not expand the coverage?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have been and will continue to expand our local business reporting. We know it is important to readers.

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washingtonpost.com: One more Swift Boat story: After Decades, Renewed War On Old Conflict, (Post, Aug. 28)

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why is it that The Post's Web site has not provided a video feed of the Third Party Debates? (or really any coverage at all for that matter.) Anyway this could be arranged for the next two Presidential Debates?

Thank you.

Leonard Downie Jr.: My colleague, Doug Feaver, executive editor of washingtonpost.com, will be here answering questions about the site next week.

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Dallas, Tex.: The importance of the forthcoming Presidential election is indisputable. Will The Washington Post break tradition and back a candidate?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Our editorial page, which is separate from the rest of the newspaper, which is my responsibility, has endorsed presidential candidates in all recent elections except one. I don't know what their plans are this time.

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Queenstown, Md.: If I need to contact one of your reporters, to discuss a potential story, what is the "most preferred," or most effective, way the majority of The Washington Post reporters would say?

Leonard Downie Jr.: You can the paper at 202-334-6000 and ask for the appropriate news desk (National, Foreign, Metro, Business, Style or Sports.

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Rockville, Md.: I appreciate the Religion section in the Metro section each week. My question, however, is why there is a bias against religion in general, and Christianity in particular, throughout other sections of the paper? Some of it is simply ignorance; making erroneous statements and perpetuating stereotypes is de rigeur for Post reporters. Ugly articles by Tom Shales and others are shocking. I've never forgotten the "poor and easily led" comment from years ago, and the outlook of the paper overall does not seem to have changed. What gives? Why does having respect for and gaining an understanding of this group of people flummox your reporters and commentators so much?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Religion is an important news subject for our readers and for us. We have expanded our coverage of religion well beyond the religion pages in recents, including many front page stories. Columnists and critics like Tom Shales have wide leeway to discuss their opinions on all subjects, including religion. But we want our news coverage to be accurate and fair; please let us know when you find an example that is not.

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Somewhere, USA: Has The Washington Post come under direct or indirect pressure from the Bush administration to alter its reporting?

Leonard Downie Jr.: All administrations, Democrat and Republican, react strongly to coverage they do not like and try to manipulate us into providing coverage they would like. The Bush administration is much like the others, with one exception: President Bush holds very few press conferences, making it difficult to question him directly about his actions and policies.

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Kingstowne, Va.: What is your reaction to the report in the alternative weekly that The Post's focus groups revealed a lack of enthusiasm for paying for the dead-tree version of the paper?

Leonard Downie Jr.: While we understand that many people now read news online, and we welcome all who read washingtonpost.com, we are also working on making the ink-on-paper newspaper more attractive and accessible to as many readers as possible. We love the folks who read both.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I am very upset about The Post censoring "The Boondocks." Why is such a paternalistic attitude taken toward the comics page?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We edit all of the newspaper for, among other things, taste. We should not allow comic strips to go beyond the bounds of taste that we enforce in the rest of the paper.

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Arlington, Va.: How do you plan to stem the decline in circulation, which seems even worse given our region's massive population growth?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We are continuing to expand our local news coverage. We are working on ways to make the paper more physically attractive and easier to navigate through each day. And we are increasing our coverage, particularly on the front page, of subjects that matter most to our readers in their daily lives, including health, pop culture, education, entertainment, technology, etc.

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Washington, D.C.: The newspaper business is strange: it is, at least in the big cities, a vertical monopoly. The Post both creates the product (writes the stories) and distributes it (selects articles and physically prints the paper). There are the few syndicated columns and features, and the AP filler, and the occasional Los Angeles Times article, but virtually all news in The Post is written by The Post.

That might make sense for the big newsmagazines -- Time isn't going to print a Newsweek article -- but The Post really only competes with the New York Times and the Washington Times. If the Chicago Tribune has a great article on Illinois politics, why doesn't The Post buy it, edit appropriately, and print it?

Similarly, there is a lot of great international reporting by non-U.S. papers. It's as if Giant carried almost only Giant brand products. This shortcoming became particularly noticeable in your coverage of the genocide in Darfur. For months, I read in-depth reports in other sources. I wrote to the Foreign desk, and the response was essentially, "We haven't printed anything because we haven't been able to do any firsthand reporting." Soon afterwards, Emily Wax was able to get into Sudan and did first-rate reporting, but this insistence on limiting yourself to Post-created product limited the coverage available to Washington-area readers, who expect The Post to provide us with a broad view of all important events.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We want to make sure that everything we publish meets our standards for accuracy, fairness and good journalism. That is easiest to do with journalism produced and edited by our own reporter and editors. That said, we do publish stories from wire services and other newspapers when they produce needed stories that we cannot produce ourselves.

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Boston, Mass.: I've read that at the New Yorker Harold Ross and one of his writers used to have knock down fights over the use of the comma. Do members of the Post's editorial staff get worked up over fine points of punctuation and grammar? While we're on the subject, is the first word after a colon capitalized or not? I've seen it done both ways.

Thanks!

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have copy editors, who are much better trained in grammar and punctuation than I am, to do this for us. And, despite mistakes you will occasionally see, they do a great job on daily deadline editing about 100,000 words in each day's paper (that's the size of an average) 365 days a year.

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New York, N.Y.: Why is it that your paper is considered one of the "liberal" news outlets?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I think because our editorial page first gained national attention in the middle of the last century fighting against McCarthy and for some liberal causes. You have to judge for yourself whether the editorial page is liberal or conservative today. But our news coverage, which is not influenced by the editorial page's views under our "separation of church and state," is intended to be completely unbiased. Some readers may confuse our efforts to hold those with power, regardless of their party or ideology, accountable to our readers with some kind of liberalism.

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Wise, Va.: As one who teaches journalism to college students, I am interested in your opinion of of public journalism -- the concept that journalism and journalistic organizations should discussing and/or help to solve the problems faced by the communities in which the organizations do business. Is this a good idea or bad idea for a profession whose principal traditional value is objectivity?

Leonard Downie Jr.: It is a good idea for news organizations to report thoroughly on community issues and problems. But only the editorial page should express opinions about them. And the news organization should not become a participant and try to achieve a specific outcome.

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Do you think that your World section really reflects true world priorities and critical situations?

Haiti, a country which is Afghanistanizing itself, is facing a very tough situation now (five successive failed working days besides the Gonaives flood) and nothing is really analysed about it in key U.S. papers.

I have been unable to go to my downtown office for five days now.

Don't you think that plight of foreign countries should be better stressed in your paper to better inspire U.S. foreign policy and also show U.S. average readers how they are lucky to live in the States despite the electoral process in your country?

All the best.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have had a reporter in Haiti in recent days reporting on the devastation, chaos and dislocation there, just as we have a reporter in the Sudan reporting on the crisis in Darfur. Within the limits of our staffing and resources, we try to report all such critical situations around the world in as timely a way as possible.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Why is it that your writers -- particularly in the Metro section -- make it so difficult to find out "where" something took place. Most of the time you have to wade through several paragraphs to find the location of the item being reported, or they say simply "Northeast" or "Northwest" assuming that everyone knows every detail of those areas. It's very frustrating and seems to be on the increase.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Sounds like we should better. We should not leave readers with unanswered questions about our stories.

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Washington, D.C.: As a D.C. resident, I am very concerned at the rah-rah coverage of baseball and the proposed stadium deal, and there has been very little detailed or critical coverage of the financing of the deal. One point in particular: every article I've read so far has said that "big business" will pay for the stadium. That's just not true. The proposed tax will only be on the first $28 million of a company's revenue. Truly big businesses will be exempt.

I can't help but think that the fact that 99 percent of The Post's revenue is exempt from this tax has colored its editorial judgment.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have and will continue to report every detail of the financing of the stadium in great depth. We have never stated that only big business will pay for the stadium; we have quoted what others have said, provided the complicated details of the financing and let readers judge.

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Arlington, Va.: If a Post writer were to email friends talking about the difficulties of being in Iraq, the deteriorating living conditions, etc. and that email were to become public, would that writer be prevented from writing?

washingtonpost.com: Private E-Mail is Public, (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 2)

Leonard Downie Jr.: You are referring to something that happened at another news organization and I don't know all the facts about it. Our reporters in Iraq, at very great risk to their personal safety, have reported to our readers everything they see, hear and experience there.

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Fairfax, Va.: I think you are missing the boat on coverage of environmental issues. We have special sections on cars and sports but no special section on this topic that is one of the major problems our society must deal with today.
It is one of my big disappointments in what I consider to be, on balance, a very good paper.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We try to cover the environment thoroughly, including a recent two-page exploration of the Bush administration's environmental record and weeks and weeks of reporting on the quality of drinking water here and around the country. But we can and will try to do still more. We recognize that it is a vital subject.

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Washington, D.C.: Why is it such a big deal to get the Metro section to do a story about a local nonprofit that provides much-needed services to the residents of the city? I used to work for a D.C. nonprofit, and called The Post twice to try to get them to do a story about our services that are geared primarily to Latinos in D.C. Nothing ever came of it. However, a call to El Pregonero and another Hispanic paper got fast reactions. Also, to advertise a nonprofit's services in The Post is prohibitively expensive. How can you really say you serve the people of the District of Columbia, when other papers clearly outshine yours in providing news you can use?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Call our city editor, Gabe Escobar, to tell him about your non-profit and he will determine whether its activities are currently newsworthy.

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Rockville, Md.: Do you see The New York Times as your primary competition? During the week you seem to hold your own with the Times in terms of national coverage, if not international. But on Sunday the Times seems to have it all over The Post. Each comparable section -- the Book Review, the Arts, the opinion section, and most of all the magazine, are deeper and more extensive in the Times. The Post doesn't seem to be trying to be comparable to the Sunday Times. Or am I comparing apples and oranges and the Post's goals and the Time's goals, in terms of breadth and depth of coverage, are not the same? I still think the Post is a great paper, but I have to rate the Times as #1.

-- Post subscriber, but Times also on Sunday.

Leonard Downie Jr.: The New York Times is a nationally circulated newspaper that has only a small circulation in Washington, even on Sundays. We try to tailor The Washington Post for our local audience. Each reader must judge for him or herself, but I believe (and others have written) that Book World is the best-reading book section in the country and Outlook is different than any other Sunday newspaper opinion section.

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For Boston... from The Post Copy Desk: Not to interrupt the flow of the chat (or to let on that we're looking on with interest), but we do duke it out over the commas... and so many more mundane things.

As for capitalization after a colon, it depends. According to Post style, if the following material is a complete sentence, the first word should be capitalized. Otherwise, it's lowercase.

Leonard Downie Jr.: See, the copy editors know more than I do. And they're watching my back at all times. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: You indicated that your reporters are allowed to vote. I heard in the past that you do not vote because you feel so passionately about objectivity. Is there any truth to this?

Thanks. The Post is the best paper in America.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks very much for the compliment. Yes, I do not vote. I decided to stop voting when I became the ultimate gatekeeper for what is published in the newspaper. I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.

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Washington, D.C.: Journalism is one of the few professions that doesn't establish and maintain licensing requirements. The response to recent scandals seems to generally be some sort of ad hoc, and frequently self-serving, investigation. Isn't it time for the major media outlets to agree upon uniform professional standards and an independent body to support their enforcement?

Leonard Downie Jr.: This First Amendment protects all speech and journalism from being regulated or controlled, no matter what it's quality is. We do have professional standards that we enforce at this newspaper and most other media organizations do, too. When we make mistakes, they are in the full view view of everyone, and our readers, ombudsman and media critics call us on them. That leads to corrections and even firings, as we have seen in the most serious recent cases.

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Texas: Why, in this day and age, do you [expletive] out profanity when it's relevant to a story? Like the Dale Earnhardt thing that's currently on the Web page.

Leonard Downie Jr.: The Washington Post is treated by its readers as a guest in their homes and they expect us to behave reasonably well. We quote profanity when the context or speaker justifies it (the vice president cursing the Senate minority leader on the Senate floor) and we indicate it by [expletive] when it is not necessary to use the actual word.

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Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks everyone for your good questions and your interest in The Washington Post. As I said in an earlier response, I passed on questions specifically about washingtonpost.com, such as its advertising policies, which can be answered next week by its executive editor, Doug Feaver. Bye.

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