Transcript

Ask The Post

Leonard Downie Jr.
Executive Editor, The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 17, 2006; 12:00 PM

This Week: Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. was online Wednesday, May 17, at noon ET to take questions and comments about The Post's coverage of local, national and world news.

The transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: The success of The Post and other big papers is largely dependent upon the willingness of others to break the law and leak classified information or information from grand jury testimony. Can you name another industry where businesses are allowed to profit on the lawbreaking actions of others?

Leonard Downie Jr.: The success of The Washington Post depends on the credibility and the usefulness of our journalism. That includes journalism that accurately and fairly holds government and other sources of power in our lives accountable to citizens and our readers. Accountability reporting does sometimes depend on information from confidential sources risking their employment or other sanctions. Very seldom, if ever, however, are they "breaking the law," even though their employers may object to their divulging the information.

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Falls Church, Va.: Mr. Downie: As you know, the comics can be some of the best social and political commentary. One comic that stood out from others in terms of its social and political commentary was Boondocks. I was saddened one day to open my paper and Boondocks was no longer there. Can you tell me the circumstances that lead the Post to drop this great comic?

Thanks

Leonard Downie Jr.: The creator of Boondocks has taken a leave of absence from drawing his strip to do other things.

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Crawford, Tex.: Mr. Downie, Do you think the revelation that this administration is reviewing the phone records of the press will have an impact on potential whistleblowers? Do you see any other ramifications to our prior freedom of press/speech?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We do not know if these reports are true. We have no information, for example, about whether the phone records of any of our reporters have been reviewed.

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Silver Spring, Md.: There is a firewall between the editorial and news branches of The Washington Post. But you have a single brand identity. Do the opinions of the editorial board ever cause trouble for the news side?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm pleased that you understand that have an absolute separation here between our editorial page, under editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, and the news pages under me. We have a similar separation between advertising and the news. I do not find that either interferes with our independence in reporting the news fully and fairly, even though we all (including washingtonpost.com and Washington Post Radio) share the same brand.

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New York, N.Y.: How are you dealing with the loss of subscription and the migration over to the Web--like washingtonpost.com?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Although there has been a decline the paid circulation of the printed Washington Post, as there has been for other newspapers, the audience for Washington Post journalism is actually growing substantially on washingtonpost.com and, now, Washington Post Radio. We want to keep the readership of the printed newspaper as high as possible, but we are pleased that our total audience is growing, regardless of platform.

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Orange, Va.: In an era where cries of media bias are more and more common, do you think it's wise to have news reporters from The Post appearing on The Post radio station and offering their opinions on the stories they are working on that day? Having grown up in a family of journalists I need to think most bias claims are bunk, but still some of the comments I've heard on Post radio from reporters--even if I agree with them--seem to allow for at least the appearance of unbalanced coverage.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Good question. Our news reporters are not supposed to express personal opinions (as opposed to analysis) on Washington Post Radio. But, of course, our columnists and critics, who express opinions in the paper, can also express them on the radio. We've only been on the air for less than two months, so some of our journalists may be adjusting to the medium.

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Frederick, Md.: Can you clarify your response earlier about journalists breaking the law? Would The Post support reporters like those at the San Francisco Chronicle, who reportedly wrote a story based on leaked grand jury information? Where does the public's right to know begin and respect for the legal system begin?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I can't comment on another newspaper's situation because I do not know the facts. But The Washington Post does respect the law at all times. We have a strict code of conduct for our reporting and our journalists.

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Boodleville, Md.: No question, no complaints, no whining, no ranting, no conspiracy theories and/or accusations. It's a tough job; keep up the good work. (P.S.: Give raises to Dana Priest, Achenbach, Weingarten, Kurtz, Shales, Hunter, Steuver, von Drehle, VandeHei, Milbank, Robinson, and the Empress. And no, I am not Priest's, Weingarten's, Achenbach's, Kurtz's, Shales's, Hunter's, Steuver's, von Drehle's, van de Hei's, Milbank's, Robinson's, or the Empress's mother -or any other relative, associate, Post employee, or friend, having never met any of them].) (I might have left a few other worthy people out, though; if so, my apologies for the omissions.)

Leonard Downie Jr.: But you did not deny being one of the aforementioned journalists himself or herself.

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Boston, Mass.: How do you thread the needle with your reporter-cum-columnists Dana Milbank and Howard Kurtz?

How do you define the difference between analysis and opinion?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Analysis is a journalist providing expert guidance to understanding the news being reported. Personal opinion is stating preferences about news events or newsmakers or about desired outcomes. Criticism is a critic's expert view about how someone is performing. Howard Kurtz, in his weekly Style column on the media, sometimes also acts as a media critic.

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Pentagon, Arlington, Va.: "Very seldom, if ever, however, are they "breaking the law," even though their employers may object to their divulging the information." I'm sorry, but in many of your big stories - NSA phone monitoring and CIA prisons, to name two recent ones - YOU ARE FLAT WRONG. Those who leaked classified information to anyone who is not properly cleared, and has a need to know, broke both their oath and the law. They deserve to be fired and punished under the law by our justice system. Your reporters do not have any more rights than the average citizen and they should also be charged and punished if convicted.

Leonard Downie Jr.: This reader is jumping to conclusions that I would not necessarily agree with in the specific cases about which I am knowledgeable, but I wanted to share the reader's view.

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Springfield, Va.: Your pollsters consistently poll more Democrats than Republicans - check out your own poll data. The last time I looked at the national election numbers from 2004 we were pretty evenly split between Ds and Rs. Can you explain why your pollster consistently has more Democrats than Republicans in his sample?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Our poll director, Rich Morin, is one of the best and most respected in the business. Your asking a sampling question that is beyond my expertise, but which Rich can answer. I suggest you contact him.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Thank you for taking our questions.

I appreciate the Post's increased coverage of the environment, particularly Eilperin's articles. I'm still frustrated with how little coverage climate change, etc get, though, given that climate change is probably the most important news for people my age and younger.

Yale has a new report, Americans and Climate Change (available here ) with a large section on media and climate change. Are you reading it and reconsidering your approach?

And when are you going to lay down ground rules about citing the scientific understanding on the one hand, and on the other hand so-and-so wants to say something, isn't able to get it into peer-reviewed journals, but we're including it in this article anyway?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We are devoting more and more attention to climate change reporting. In addition to Juliette Eilperin's beat reporting, our national and foreign correspondents are reporting on evidence of climate change and effects around the world. Since we are not scientists ourselves, we do our best to report the evidence and debate produced by scientists and policy makers.

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Arlington, Va.: My question concerns the reporter's stance toward the news, as reflected in the way the reporter describes his or her interaction with a source.

In particular, I find it entertaining when a reporter is describing something someone has said and says something along the lines of , "Ms. So-and-so, speaking for the organization, told a reporter that . . . -whatever]. This strikes me as very odd; it's as if there were a reporter in the room other than the reporter who wrote the story.

Is there a preferred stance for reporters to take? Columnists, of course, can write in the first person, but is this approach ruled out for news reporters? If using the first person seems to bring the reporter into the story too much, wouldn't it be better to find a phrase other than "told a reporter"?

Leonard Downie Jr.: A perennial issue in newsrooms. We do not believe that reported journalism should be in the person, with the rare exception of when a reporter is unavoidable part of the story (such as when one of our Iraq correspondents comes under attack and writes about it). And we have not yet come up with a better phrase than "told a reporter," which has the virtue of being accurate.

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Princeton, N.J.: It is my understanding that the law on classified leaking was passed in 1917 which makes it hard to sat what is unlawful today. I worked for many years in a highly classified job, and many, many times I heard officials give classified information out to the public, and they never were punished.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm not an expert on the law, although our newspaper's lawyers are and they advise us regularly on how to deal with it. But I agree that much of what we are told by government officials in our accountability reporting would not appear to violate the law.

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Arlington, Va.: I second that emotion! That is, you should give raises to all the people mentioned above and a few more too: Lisa de Moraes, Henry Allen, Stephen Hunter, Michael Dirda, Robin Givhan, Marc Fisher, John Kelly, Eugene Robinson, and probably others too. And some of them should write more too. I know they're not all full-time employees, but I'd like to hear more from all of them. I'd even pay more!

The Post is, truly, the best thing about living in the D.C. area.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thank you.

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Rockville, Md.: Analysis?

I have seen some analysis on the front page that seemed very much like opinion. How do we tell the difference? (I hope this does not sound rude.)

Leonard Downie Jr.: I stated the distinction in an earlier answer. Sometimes, whether it appears to be analysis or something else is in the opinion of the reader.

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Silver Spring, Md.: A couple of quick questions on energy:

How do you weigh changes occurring in the energy arena both domestically and geopolitically and how do they influence the coverage The Post is authoring for your readers?

Is Steve Mufson the new energy beat reporter? What happened to Justin Blum, who is still listed widely as the person writing about energy?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Steve Mufson, a very experienced reporter with a background in energy, diplomacy, economics and foreign affairs, is in our new energy reporter. Justin Blum left us for another job.

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Dale City, Va.: Mr. Downie,

Please keep those Pulitzer winning stories coming our way. Just because some government functionary thinks something classifies something does not mean the public automatically has no right to know. It appears that often these days things are "classified" for political reasons rather than "national security" reasons. Saying that something you do which breaks the law is classified so you never have to pay the price is just wrong. It seems that most of the leaking is being done by career employees in some very sensitive agencies who have been there for years. They are not going to leak anything that they believe is genuinely correctly classified. I believe they have been asked to commit too many crimes and are trying to save our country.

Thanks again for being brave enough to put the uncomfortable truth out there.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Another view on this subject.

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Alexandria, Va.: Good afternoon, Mr. Downie. Is there any chance that the authors of your editorials will ever have the courage to sign their names to them? It's always a mystery to figure out which one of your team actually wrote them...even the Supreme Court lets us know who wrote their opinions and who dissented against them. Why do you hide behind a secret wall? Not expecting an answer, or the truth, but I thought I would give you the chance. Many thanks!

Leonard Downie Jr.: Ask this question of Fred Hiatt when he next does an Ask the Post chat.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: The Post is indispensable for me; and I love these online chats. Thanks for doing them.

What was the new discovery that led Bob Woodward to reveal to you, on last October 24, that he had a source on Valerie Plame? Was it the discovery of Plame in his notes - as a Post article by Vandehei a while back suggested - either from his interview with his initial source, or in the notes he had with him when he talked with Libby?

And will we ever learn who blew Plame's cover with Walter Pincus on July 12, 2003?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Everything that I can say about Woodward and his confidential source has been reported in full in the newspaper. Because the source has not released Woodward or the newspaper from the confidentiality pledge, I cannot say more at this time.

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Boston, Mass.: I'd like to congratulate the Post on having such a superior online presence -- bells and whistles are great, but the chats and the blogs with the reporters and editors are what really improves the experience for me -- building trust, engaging, making me care.

What is the general policy for writing new stories spurred by the editorial pages? Do news reporters shy away from fact-checking editorials/op-eds, in their own paper or others? I could imagine it could be a sticky tar pit to fall into; but often news is made in the op-eds (Joe Wilson, Bob Novak, etc.) or policy shaped by editorials.

Leonard Downie Jr.: News reporters and editors at the Post have nothing to do with editorials or op-ed columns. Fred Hiatt is in charge of their editing and fact-checking.

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Pasco, Wash.: Mr. Downie:

ABC News has been reporting FBI tracking of reporters phone calls at The Post and other outlets. Is it true? Are you taking steps to protect sources?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I said earlier that we do not know if this report is true. We always take every step possible to protect our confidential source agreements.

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Washington, D.C.: Last week there was a story on the horrible circumstances which continue for Romanian orphans. The Post ran a photo of a horribly starved and disfigured young girl with a look on her face sadder than anything I have ever seen. Good for you. This is like Auschwitz- the complacency of the world is staggering. Can you please follow up on this- did they RESCUE that girl? Who could just walk by her? Wouldn't someone take mercy on them on the spot?

Leonard Downie Jr.: A comment others may want to see.

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Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Downie, I think these chats are great, thanks for taking our questions.

My question is related to the well-organized effort on the right to attack the press as "liberally biased". It's the myth that won't die. And there are real negative results of people not trusting the credibility of the MSM. For example, according to PIPA, a MAJORITY(!) of the country believed before the 2004 elections that there was a working relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. The Post and other MSM repeated reported otherwise i.e. the truth.

I think that the propagation of the "liberal bias" myth is just an (effective) attempt for people in power to avoid hard truths and accountability, and it has dire consequences for our democracy. So, my question is: do you think it is enough for The Post just to stand by the quality of its reporting, or do you think that you should aggressively defend yourself against these damaging myths?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I will leave it to our readers to judge the credibility of our journalism each day. It comes under criticism each day from voices on both the left and the right who would like us to report things more from their point of view. Our goal is be unbiased, accurate and fair.

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McLean, Va.: Why does The Washington Post continue to accept massage parlor advertisements, in its Sports Section, when it is known that these businesses are fronts for prostitution? Through these advertisements The Post enables organize crime to come into our neighborhoods. Isn't The Post concerned about it reputation as a newspaper and its role in this community?

Leonard Downie Jr.: This question should be addressed to our publisher or our advertising department.

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washingtonpost.com: Special report on Climate Change

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Thanks for this chat.

Will Tony Kornheiser continue to write for The Post as he moves into another(!) TV booth? His "columnettes" are nice , but I miss his regular columns in Sports and going way back , in Style.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I hope Tony will continue to write for us in whatever format he chooses with whatever time he has in his very busy life as a radio and television star.

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Silver Spring, Md.: First, a compliment. I had sent an e-mail to the ombudsman (lady?) complaining of an opinion piece in the op-ed page. She said she would pass it on to you. I couldn't believe I actually received a thoughtful e-mail from you regarding this. It shows me that the Post bigwigs do actually listen to us "lesser mortals" . Thank you for that.

Question: I know the ombudsman's role is directly related to news and not opinion, editorials or columnists. I don't think it is right to limit the position in this way. I think the ombudsman should be free to critique or investigate any aspect of the paper even to the point of perhaps chiding editorial staff for potentially taking contradictory stances on similar subjects. Your thoughts?

Leonard Downie Jr.: The ombudsman works on a contract that gives her complete freedom to comment on anything in the newspaper. I take her views about our news coverage very seriously.

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Chicago, Ill.: What is The Post's position on using the words undocumented immigrants vs illegal aliens.

It has been obvious to us who see through semantics that media who uses the latter (Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) understand the obsolescence of this government term.

Everyone knows that since Orson Welles' 1938 radio prank, aliens in the modern imagery are slimy, monstrous, non-human entities. To continue to dehumanize the 'illegals' in this manner seems overkill.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We try not to use the word aliens because it can be ambiguous. And we try to use illegal or undocumented in those instances in which either term is accurate.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: Since The Post often uses the term "undocumented worker" to refer to an illegal immigrant, can we expect The Post to use a similar formulation to refer to other illegal activities, such as "undocumented driver" for driving without a license, or "undocumented doctor" for someone practicing medicine without a license? Seriously though, by using the term undocumented worker, isn't the Post taking an editorial position on the subject matter and thus losing some of its objectivity?

Leonard Downie Jr.: As I just indicated, where illegal is clearly the accurate term, we use it. A driver without a license is "unlicensed" driver.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you have any plans to begin charging for access to all or part of the web site. I'm sure many readers would be disturbed by the prospect, but I'd like it.

I read quite a lot of The Post, but I do almost all of my reading online. I'd like to stop subscribing so as to cut down the amount of stuff I need to take to the recycling drop off, but I feel that I should be paying something for the pleasure and enlightenment that I get from The Post.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Please keep reading both. They are different and complimentary reading experiences.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Downie:

Just a comment...

I feel I get my information from The Post on both sides..all you have to do is read the print version or read it on-line. You have the articles that are both "left" and "right". Makes a person not jump to conclusions because it is fair and level headed writing.

Keep UP the good work!

Leonard Downie Jr.: I'm passing this along because it makes me feel good. thanks.

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Springfield, Va.: The Post was quick to try to debunk exit polls showing Kerry the winner of the race. But now other papers have investigated and have reported that the exit polls were very accurate-- in areas that did not have Diebold voting machines (company run by a Bush fundraiser and the machines have no verifiable recount system).

When is The Post going to do a follow-up news story on this? Do you really think this story is not newsworthy?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We reported accurately that the exit polls were wrong during part of election day and why. We continue to look into and report on the dependability of voting machines then and now as we approach another national election.

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Columbia, Md.: As an English teacher and devout Post reader, I have a bone to pick with your paper's writing. Often the "lead" sentences of stories are too long. They start with some passive phrase ("In a development that ..."). Then comes the main point ("lawmakers yesterday announced..."). Finally, a quasi-analytical concluding clause (", threatening the coalition ...")

Why not three short, crisp paragraphs? Often the clot of text atop stories stop me from going on.

(Another peeve: Meandering anecdotes. But we'll leave that for another chat.)

Leonard Downie Jr.: I hope our reporters are reading this. We are trying to speed up "leads" and reduce the number of anecdotal "leads." (Confession: when I was a reporter and then a line editor, I was responsible for way too many long "leads.")

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Rochester, N.Y.: I've noticed a lot of angry conservative questions here, accusing you of profiting of breaking the law, of having biases in your polls and so on. How much affect do to these attacks have on news coverage? I've noticed that The Post and other media outlets bend over backwards to keep from offending the right-wing. To what extend is this a result of organized campaigns by the right to intimidate? Is there concern that placating the right has come to affect news coverage? Certainly, many have said that was the case during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We work hard to not be affected by the campaigns of activists on either the left or the right.

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Ohio: Mr. Downie,

Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

I'd like to ask for your honest opinion as to the level of success Deborah Howell has had in her role as Ombudsman.

She's made it clear that since she's on a contract, the opinion of the public she's apparently there to relate with doesn't matter; I therefore put it to you that your presenting your honest opinion of her wouldn't hurt her either.

Therefore, please, tell us, do you think Ms. Howell has benefited The Post since coming on board?

Does her track record of injecting herself into stories, stirring hornets' nests, decrying other Post employees, and acting as an opinion author rather than, well, an ombudsman... does that reflect well on The Post?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Deborah Howell is an outstanding ombudsman. Her job is to hold us and our journalism accountable to our readers, and she does it well.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Downie, I do realize that you're not a representative of the advertising side of The Post, but I do find it interesting that, in an era where more and more people read The Post, online, your paper gets less advertising revenue online. Is the switch of readers to the online medium hurting the amount of money your team allots to news-gathering?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Our advertising revenue, both on-line and in the printed newspaper, is increasing.

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McLean, Va.: How do you utilize your writer on their off seasons? Say when football season is over what do your editors/writers work on. Or when basketball is over? Do they cover other sports full time or 1 day a week. I know an editor/writer in the sports department and he seems to have most of the summer off.

Leonard Downie Jr.: The reporters who cover professional sports team cover them year around, including in the off-season, when personnel and other decisions are being made that affect the upcoming season.

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Lifelong Reader: To comment on that first question, the success of The Post has to do with the fact that it continues to provide useful and valuable information to its readers -- and that's true even if some people only read it so they can complain about it.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I can't help myself. This one makes me feel good, too.

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Burke, Va.: A recent internal BBC audit recommended changing their internal style policy that prohibited the use of the words "terrorist" or "terrorism", except when quoting someone; the BBC found that by avoiding the use of these terms they were actually undermining their efforts to be accurate and credible. Do you anticipate changing The Post's policy in the near future?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We constantly review our policy and continue to use terms that are as precisely accurate as possible in each context.

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Dunn Loring, Va.: According to my search of The Post's Web site, today's paper's identifies something/one as conservative at least fifteen times, while identifying something/one as liberal only three times? Why is being conservative noteworthy but something being liberal isn't?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Perhaps we did a better job in today's paper of covering conservatives than we did liberals.

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Boston, Mass.: I think the Washington Post has been doing great reporting of late, both with the breaking news stories and with the long-term. I want to encourage you to keep on the Katrina story -- especially because now the situation is entirely determined by people (the government, the survivors, the businesses) instead of nature. I'd also love to find out what changes have been wrought in our government in response to September 11 -- from limited glimpses (such as in side coverage from the Moussaoui trial) I see that many of the widows and other victims' family members and friends are continuing to pressure the government for changes that may never come

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks. Coverage of the continuing impact of the hurricanes on New Orleans and Mississippi and what is being done to help the people there remains a high priority for us, as evidenced by the front page story in today's paper and on the web site.

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Fairfax, Va.: It is discouraging to see The Post's editorial page growing farther out of sync with both The Post's front page and actual facts.

From The Post's inexcusable lack of skepticism on Bush's WMD claims to The Post's Iraq war boosterism to head-scratching editorials like "A Good Leak," The Post's credibility and reputation for good judgment are in tatters.

When will The Post take responsibility for its substantive mistakes and get back in the business of serious investigative journalism and telling the truth to power?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I will not, of course, comment on the editorial page. But, as for our news and investigative reporting, most of what you now know about the conduct of the Iraq war and its origins comes from reporting by this and other newspapers.

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Fairfax City, Va.: I love the new irreverence in The Post. The Style section is adding some kick-derriere humor in its gossip column. The Sports section has Norman Chad and those other two buys on Monday who are often hysterical. Weingarten is a treasure, as is the Invitational. Humor sometimes educates more than a whole ream of ponderous opinion.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Humor and fun should be part of the newspaper, as they are in life. But I'm beginning to wonder how Weingarten can be sending self-promoting questions to this chat from so many locations.

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St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada: I wonder how many of your readers realize what a treasure they have in The Post. Just try depending on any other newspaper (save the NYT and other 'biggies') for news and analysis. I was a long-time Post subscriber, and now am a grateful ex-pat able to read the on-line version. Beats all the Canadian press hands down.

You don't know what you've lost til it's gone.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Oh, all right. One more than makes feel good. Thank you all for your questions of every kind.

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