Transcript

Ask The Post

Leonard Downie Jr.
Executive Editor, The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 12, 2005; 12:00 PM

This Week: Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. answered your questions about The Washington Post's news coverage.

The transcript follows.

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Reston, Va.: Do you really think that the content of The Post is what is driving circulation numbers down? And so you should shorten stories, add full-column indexes, and write insipid "lifestyle" stories? How ridiculous! Readership is dropping because the options for news consumption have grown exponentially. The way to retain readers is to produce a high-quality product, one The Post is famous for, not pander to idiots who aren't going to read it anyway. Why pander? What about those of us who've been reading all these years?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I totally agree that future readership of the newspaper (and washingtonpost.com) depends on our continuing to produce a high quality news product, which we intend to do. The changes we are making are intended only to make it easier for readers to navigate the newspaper.

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Ashburn, Va.: Why has The Post gone so far to the left in its reporting?? example, you have been running the same story about Clinton campaigning for Kaine for days now.....

For me, the only section worth reading is the sports page and with Solomon reporting that has even been tough to read some days.

Leonard Downie Jr.: If you are referring to our Sunday sports columnist (and former sports editor) George Solomon, I think it is unfair to pick on someone who is trying his best to overcome limited talent and advancing age. (Just kidding, George, really.)

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Fairfax County, Va.: I am 43; I grew up in this area reading The Washington Post, had to make a special effort to receive it while at college, and continue to look forward to it each morning. I believe it is the best paper, bar none, in the United States.

That being said, I am extremely worried about the declining circulation. Recently I saw the "new TV Guide" that debuted this week as a completely unrecognizable large-size magazine with thin content; I'm pretty sure they have turning slowly declining circulation into catastrophically plummeting circulation. How can you address the declining circulation without losing your identity as they did?

Or are the revenues from Stanley Kaplan test prep courses keeping The Post afloat so this is not as much of a concern as I fear?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Although paid circulation of The Washington Post newspaper has been declining, we still have the highest circulation penetration of our readership area of any metropolitan daily newspaper. And our overall readership has grown immensely because of the fast-growing audience for our journalism on washingtonpost.com. We also publish the Express newspaper for Metro subway riders and El Tiempo Latino for Spanish-speaking readers.

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Burke, Va.: This question goes back to the time before the Iraq war. The Post was better than the NY Times in that it didn't have Ms. Miller pushing the war on the front page, using only dubious sources which supported what the administration was doing. However, I do think you owe us an explanation why you consistently put what the Bush administration said on page A1 of The Washington Post, and then when something was disproven a few days later put that information on page A13. I started telling everyone I knew that the truth was out there, but you really had to look for it. Personally I believe that you share the blame for the idiotic war we are in right now.

Leonard Downie Jr.: As I have said before, while we did not have evidence at that time to "disprove" what the administration was saying as its rationale for going to war, we did report skepticism expressed by some experts and people in the administration, and we did not often enough put those stories on the front page.

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Kansas City, Mo.: As a former resident and current landlord in D.C., I keep a daily eye on The Post online. My comment is that I hope that you keep up the online chats with a diverse array of reporters and guests -- these forums are a clear differentiator for The Post in the online world and one of the most potent reinforcement tools for The Post as a brand (had to get in that marketing talk). I lurk on many of the chats, from politics to metro issues to automobiles. You may not realize how ardent your readership is on so many of these discussions -- I learn a lot, whether from Kaiser or Pearlstein or Brown or Singletary or Koncius and Groer (don't EVER EVER scrap the decorating chat---a mutiny will result!!). No other paper has the same tone and accessibility of these chats. Please keep them. Promise? Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks, and we promise to keep them coming.

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Arlington, Va.: Does The Post support the establishment of a shield law at the federal level to protect reporters? If so, how would The Post define who is covered? Would bloggers be covered?

Leonard Downie Jr.: The Washington Post company does support passage of a federal shield law. I do not know what its position is on the difficult question of how to define journalists in such legislation.

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Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Downie, the faults of the mainstream media, including The Post, notwithstanding, you and your staff are to be congratulated for producing a truly outstanding newspaper. I've only lived in the Washington area for four years, but The Post is undoubtedly one of the best things about living being here and something I dearly miss when I am away. My friends and acquaintances who work for The Post unanimously support you and the paper. And while I know that journalists are constantly critiquing their work and their publications - just as they and you should - you deserve a moment of praise for offering the country an extraordinary newspaper and an unmatched public service for the country. Thank you.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thank you, too.

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Charleston, S.C.: It appears that The Post became enthralled with the recent Ben Ladner situation at American University. I believe there were over 10 articles, including numerous front page stories outlining his alleged wrongdoings. Indeed, when Ladner responded in an op-ed, The Post replied in its own opinion piece. With this editorial position taken against Ladner, how do you ensure that the pieces about the situation are written as objectively as possible?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I don't know what the position of our editorial page was on the conduct of American University president Ladner. I try to avoid reading such editorials and we keep a complete separation here between newsgathering, which I direct, and the editorial page, edited by Fred Hiatt. So our coverage was not in any way influenced by the editorial page, and we have tried to be as accurate and fair as possible in that coverage.

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McLean, Va.: As a longtime reader, I extend a hearty welcome to Michael Kinsley! Will we be seeing him in an expanded roll, say as a regular columnist at The Post? Or will he be working behind the scenes to improve washingtonpost.com Web site?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Because Michael Kinsley is an op-ed columnist, he works for Fred Hiatt, and Fred would have to answer your question.

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Alexandria, Va.: The New York Times recently had an editorial about being vigilant in making corrections in their newspaper. They were committed regardless of type or "seriousness" of the mistake.

What is The Post's stance on this issue?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have a long record of being committed to correcting all mistakes made in the newspaper, big and small. The corrections are published each day on page A-2. And readers can call mistakes to our attention by phone, e-mail or letter.

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Lorton, Va.: Why do you spend so much time dissecting every little political action inside the beltway? Dana Milbank's piece on Bush's physical ticks was a big waste of time both his and mine. Reassign him to obituaries. Why not commit the editorial staff to more in depth examination of critical issues affecting Americans long term. Move the political stuff inside. What if the politicians held a press conference and no one showed up.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We do often publish in-depth stories about the major issues facing the country, most recently including the threat of Avian flu and the causes and reactions to the flooding and chaotic evacuation of New Orleans. But we also cover politics in great detail because it is Washington's industry and plays a large role in how the country is governed.

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Kensington, Md.: Mr. Downie, in his recent chat with Post readers, Daniel Ellsberg referred to the American media's evasion of the Downing Street Memos thusly: "it seems part of a general pattern of subservience to the administration line that goes back to 9/11 in 2001 and ever since. The media seems cowardly and passive and subservient in a way that I can't fully explain."

This is exactly how many of us feel, including the 57% who say the administration intentionally lied to us going into Iraq. How do you respond to his comments?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I disagree with his comments and would suggest that the reason why a majority of Americans are skeptical about the administration's rationale for going to war is that the news media, including particularly this newspaper, have provided them the information that casts doubt on what the administration said.

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Toronto, Canada: Your coverage of the identity of those detained in the "war on terror" has been better than other US newspapers. You and your colleagues should be congratulated.

You published a list of the names of Gitmo detainees, by nationality, over a year ago. Your list covered about half of the detainees.

Do you still have a researcher tracking this information, and, if so, will you be publishing an update?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We do have researcher -- and reporters -- still looking into this subject and will publish more stories in the future.

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Baltimore, Md.: I have noticed that your paper leans very liberal. Will you be considering hiring more journalists that could represent the other side of the spectrum? Virginia and Maryland are both getting more conservative while D.C. has always been liberal shouldn't your paper represent your targeted audience.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We want our news coverage to be completely unbiased. We have a very diverse staff by every measure -- gender, race, age, educational and family background -- that we want to reflect the diversity of our circulation area.

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Washington, D.C.: I moved to DC after reading The Post's Watergate coverage as a young man. The Post did heroic work back then.

Nowadays, The Post seems firmly behind the current administration. It wasn't worth the front page when it turned out that numerous Guantanamo detainees had been cleared but were still being held as prisoners for no legal reason. The Post still hasn't noted that Harriet Miers has never argued or briefed a single case before the Supreme Court.

It's such a shame that the Post has abandoned its historical role as the public's watchdog in favor of being the Bush administration's lapdog.

Leonard Downie Jr.: In our news coverage, we have take no position on the current administration and we cover it as aggressively as we have covered its predecessors. We have repeatedly reported that Harriet Miers has not Supreme Court or constitutional law experience. And we have led the way in reporting on conditions for detainees at Guantanamo and other American military and CIA detention centers around the world, as another participant in this chat noted earlier.

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: Mr. Downie,

The CIA leak investigation has placed a spotlight once again on the role of unidentified sources in journalism, ironically around the time when Deep Throat's identity has been revealed. Do you believe that sources in a superior power position relative to their adversary (e.g. the Bush White House vs. Joseph Wilson) should be provided the same level of confidentiality by news editors as sources in an inferior power position relative to their adversary (e.g. Mark Felt vs the Nixon White House)?

Leonard Downie Jr.: In order to gather information of importance to our readers and the country, we sometimes have to enter into confidential relationships with sources. We honor that confidentiality in all instances, unless released from our agreement by our source, no matter who they are.

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Washington, D.C.: I don't have a question, but a comment: Thank you for keeping The Washington Post, and The Post online, such a great - and free - place for people to get well-written, non-biased information. With the advent of things such as the new pay service on the NY Times Web site, The Post has really gained the number one spot. These "Live Online" talks are great, too! Thanks and keep up the great work!

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks.

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Dickerson, Md.: Why do so few journalists and newspapers remain neutral when reporting and selecting stories? Isn't neutrality one of the main characteristics of a great and true journalist? Thank you for taking my question.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Absolutely, yes. Neutrality, fairness, lack of bias -- however you put it -- is important more than ever for an authoritative news organization these days when so much opinion is being passed off as news.

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Washington, D.C.: The Post recently published a correction about an individual who was incorrectly described as a novice protestor. A few blogs I watch were less than impressed with your correction. In addition to listening to your readers do you monitor any blogs for feedback on your reporting?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Yes, our reporters pay a lot of attention to blogs and have often gotten good news tips from them.

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Iowa: The New York Times has come under criticism for how it has handled Judy Miller case from the outset--and continues to receive poor reviews for its coverage of the case. Should a similar situation arise at The Washington Post, how would you like to think you would deal with it? (The Miller case is one of several reasons why some of us believe that The Washington Post has now supplanted the NY Times as the nation's most reliable newspaper.)

Leonard Downie Jr.: We also had two reporters subpoenaed in the special counsel's investigation of the Valerie Plame case. Each of the reporters -- Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler -- provided limited testimony last year in depositions after they were specifically released from their confidential source agreements by their sources for the purpose of those depositions. Both reporters then disclosed their testimony in public statements and the Post published stories about their testimony.

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Jacksonville, N.C.: Being in the military I have moved in and out of the D.C. area many times, and each time one of the first phone calls I make is to The Post to get home delivery. Where I live now it is difficult to get incise news and analysis so it is always nice to move to an area with an important newspaper. I do get the weekly addition and find it useful. As far as I can tell, The Post is the go-to newspaper in the region. My wife loves the Friday weekender. As far as political tilt, I know what I'm getting when I get The Post, but to be honest, if I don't turn to the editorials I don't really know the paper's slant. I guess my concern, or question would be-- How come the paper never endorses a Republican, even when the candidate is clearly a better choice?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I believe our editorial page has endorsed Republicans, but editorial page editor Fred Hiatt would have to answer you question. I have nothing to do with the paper's editorials or endorsements.

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Bethesda, Md.: In light of the administration's illegal payments of taxpayer funds to Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher to do propaganda, has The Post considered asking each of its writers and editors to publicly disclose any contracts they have with outside bodies (including the government)?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Our journalists are not allowed to do work for or receive any money from any government. We have strict rules about what kinds of outside work they can engage in and all such free-lance work must be disclosed to and approved by their editors.

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Mays Landing, N.J.: Hello Mr. Downie,

Emily Wax wrote a very poignant story this past week about children from Africa who are regrettably affected by choices of prostitution so they can survive. I was touched by their story. I wondered if there was a way I could send some financial aid to them. Please get back to me and tell if this is possible.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm not sure, beyond those charities that do work in Africa. You can reach Emily directly at waxe@washpost.com. Thank you for your concern.

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Meddybemps, Maine: I read The Post every day on line and enjoy it greatly. However, every news item on Iraq contains snippets citing violence even when the articles focus has nothing to do with the issue of violence in that country. I notice it even more in article featuring our servicemen. It seems that all good news is immediately deflated by a reference to a bombing somewhere in the country.

Are you trying to be unbiased? If so, any bombing that makes the headline should also contain a small "silver lining" story.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We are simply reporting as fully as we can the reality of what is happening in Iraq each day, and most days include bombings and other violence.

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New York, N.Y.: Thanks for these chats! They truly internalize issues for me and help me better understand them.

I don't believe in bias, but I wonder if there is some attitude of "we don't want to upset anyone" when delivering the news. It all seems so sanitized-for-my-protection. Do you feel that The Post's finished product lacks an edge? I ask because I certainly do -- not just with The Post either, but with American media in general.

Leonard Downie Jr.: If you were in my position -- or that of our ombudsman -- you would know that we upset many people every day with some aspect of our journalism. It is unavoidable because readers come to our journalism with their own feelings and views. We are not trying to play it safe. We are trying to report everything we know, regardless of how it may appear to some readers.

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Keller Doesn't think so: "Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler -- provided limited testimony last year in depositions after they were specifically released from their confidential source agreements by their sources for the purpose of those depositions. Both reporters then disclosed their testimony in public statements and the Post published stories about their testimony. "

According to Bill Keller of the NYTimes, your reporters were as forthcoming as Robert Novak about their testimony, which is to say, they did nada.

Why would Keller say such a thing? Are you going to speak to him about it? I hope you do, since it seems to be a big slap against your org. to say that your reporters aren't forthcoming.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I spoke to Bill about this today, and he acknowledged and is correcting his error. I know that it was not intentional. Our reporters testified a year ago, so I'm not surprised that he did not remember everything about it.

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Brookings, S.D.: In your view, when, if ever, will the printed news product cease to be the flagship delivery product of news, information and advertising content for The Washington Post?

Leonard Downie Jr.: The printed newspaper will outlast me by decades if not longer, but it doesn't really matter because our newsroom and our advertising department are central to our content in the paper, on the web and on any other platform that comes along.

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Bethesda, Md.: Question: If a top Clinton official had resigned on a Friday and was arrested the following Monday for obstruction of justice and lying to Federal investigators, how many weeks would the story have occupied the front page? Why then do none of my co-workers seem to know who David Safavian is?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have and will continue to publish stories about the Abramoff investigation that produced this indictment.

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Stockholm, Sweden: You should hire more reporters named Dana. They are both

excellent.

Leonard Downie Jr.: And very, very different.

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Arlington, Va.: The Post's fine ombudsman, Michael Getler, has pointed out that Post stories that raised questions about WMD were buried and that other stories that challenged the official wisdom and unfolded in public were either missed or played down by editors who "focused on preparing for the coming war." I have a sense that The Post under-reported other failings of this administration as well.

Distorting news and analysis is probably the worst charge that can be brought against a newspaper. One explanation is that The Post may have exchanged unparalleled administration access in exchange favorable coverage.

Leonard Downie Jr.: The administration would be surprised that someone believes we have underreported their "failings," since our coverage has been so aggressive. And our reporters would be surprised that someone believes they have any special access to an administration that has been unusually closed and disciplined in its relationship with the news media.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Downie, to what extent are you involved with washingtonpost.com? And, if you are able to tell me, how does the site balance the demand for "fast news" with the protections and filters that newspapers put articles through? Does the copydesk get a look at articles before they're posted, or does the reporter just edit them as best as he/she can before they're quickly posted up?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Very good question. We have a "continuous news desk" in the newspaper's newsroom, where editors and reporters edit and rewrite stories written for washingtonpost.com-com. The web site also has editors who scrutinize the stories and decide how they should be displayed on the site. All of washingtonpost.com's journalism is edited to the same standards as the newspaper's content.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Your White House Briefing columnist, Dan Froomkin, is ridiculously biased to the Left. Is that how you want your paper to be perceived?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Columnists, whether they appear in the newspaper or on the web site, are entitled to have points of view, unlike our reporters.

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Dublin, Ireland: I've read a few articles about Harriet Miers lack of experience, but haven't seen much about why President Bush nominated her aside from personal acquaintance and prior legal experience. Why did she stand out among all the other contenders, many who were groomed by Bush's own party to be successors to the Supreme Court?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have had a number of good stories exploring these questions that you can find in the Supreme Court coverage package on the site.

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Kansas City, Mo.: In Howard Kurtz article on Stephen Colbert he said "The most common thing that real reporters say to me is, 'I wish I could say what you say.' I don't understand is, why can't they say what I say, even in their own way."

Why can't, or don't they?

Colbert added "that there's a sense that if they engaged in what we do at 'The Daily Show,' they'd be accused of being too aggressive."

Do you think this is true?

Leonard Downie Jr.: The Daily Show is entertainment and satire, not news, and Colbert's comments are part of the entertainment.

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Richmond, Va.: I am a relocated Washingtonian and a lifelong fan of The Post.

On the issue of anonymous sources and the Plame affair, I have a question. You have been using a lot of anonymous sources and I understand that the Post has a policy of trying to reveal who the anonymous source is sympathetic to, i.e., a Republican operative said...

In the Plame matter, you have not been revealing the source's bias, the sources are generally listed as someone close to the investigation or briefed on the testimony. Since the stakes are so high here, it would be very helpful to give more information about the anonymous sources.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We provide readers with as much information about our sources -- and why unnamed sources refuse to be quoted by name -- as we can without violating our confidentiality agreements with those sources.

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Manassas, Va.: Mr. Downie, do you really believe, as reported in a recent Howard Kurtz column, that Marie Arana's observation about the liberal "our kind" culture at the Post shows that you have a "diverse staff" ideologically? Does a tiny number of alternate voices constitute diversity, and will you be applying that standard to analysis of, say, women in the hard sciences or black journalists in upper management?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have many women and journalists of color among the 30 or so senior editors who run the newspaper and its various sections. I'm not sure how to define "hard sciences" or how many reporters cover them.

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Atlanta, Ga.: The press seems to be attacked by every side these days. You can't be a mouth piece of the administration, and a member of the liberal media.

Are the criticism, charges of bias against the press stronger than any time in your career?

Leonard Downie Jr.: They are most numerous and strongest since the Vietnam War and Watergate, the last similarly devise period during my 41 years at The Washington Post. The country is deeply polarized right now and many strongly opinionated Americans want the media to reflect only their point of view. But we are committed here to aggressive, unbiased reporting, regardless of such pressures.

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Washington, D.C.: As the executive editor, I commend you on your efforts to bring readers diversity for gaining media coverage. I also commend the technical side of the operation who maintain such a high level of accessibility. Several news mediums that I use have daily down periods at certain times of day. I do not have this problem with "The Post".

By the way, Gene Weingarten is hilarious!

Thank you, your pride is evident!

D.C. reader

Leonard Downie Jr.: I don't why I'm positing this. Gene's ego is out of control already.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Mr. Downie: often when I read a music critics review of a particular act, I get a downright hostile feeling, and sometimes sarcastic tone to the performing acts, especially rock shows. Is there any effort to pair the writers with bands they might like or not like ?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Criticism is all about opinion and fresh rather than predictable views.

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Catonsville, Md.: Mr. Downie,

It is a pleasure to have this opportunity to ask you a few questions. Do you consider investigations (metro area and Md., Va.) of political corruption a top priority for The Post's local coverage? What resources does the post have and use for these often-difficult investigative pieces. How do editors come to the conclusion that significant resources should be spent investigating a public official if there is evidence that could point to a corruption story?

Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: One of the most important roles of the newspaper is to hold public officials accountable to citizens. We are open to any information that will help us accomplish this purpose. We have a large number of investigative reporters.

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Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm afraid I have to sign off for now. I'm sorry I didn't get to all the questions and I will try to return soon.

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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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