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Leonard Downie Jr.
Leonard Downie Jr.
Confronting Iraq: In the Field -- correspondents on the front lines
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Confronting Iraq Discussion Transcripts
Woodward talked about "Bush at War" in November
Talk: World Message Boards
Live Online Transcripts

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Covering the War in Iraq
With Leonard Downie Jr.
Executive Editor, The Washington Post

Thursday, March 20, 2003; Noon ET

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq now underway, the challenge of telling the story of what's happening on the ground to the troops and civilians in and around Iraq is formidable. News organizations and reporters must make tough choices about where they will be and how they will do their jobs in the line of fire.

How is The Washington Post covering the war in Iraq? What are the tradeoffs between telling the story and staying safe? What can readers expect from correspondents in the field?

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. was online Thursday, March 20, to talk about the Post's coverage of the war and the challenges facing journalists in conflict.

The transcript follows.

Downie has been executive editor of The Post since 1991, after serving as managing editor for seven years. He was national editor and did a stint as the paper's London correspondent from 1979-82. He was an investigative reporter and editor on the Metro staff for 15 years, helping to supervise The Post's Watergate coverage. The author of three books and contributor to a fourth, Downie is a director of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He joined The Post as a summer intern in 1964.

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.

Wheaton, Md.: Will the Washington Post reporters avoid reporting the true horrors and atrocities of the Hussein regime to avoid retaliation as they do with Arafat and Hamas? Or, should we expect to only hear about how oppressive the Americans are?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have a team of reporters ready to report everything we can about the Saddam Hussein regime's behavior after the war is over.

Bolinas, Calif.: Bush said all journalists should leave Iraq; what were your own feelings when you heard that? I consider the journalists real heroes, they are "armed" with only sat phones and laptops -- mightier than the smart bomb? Hope so. I do think so if allowed to write the whole stories. I'm deeply concerned for their safety. I write this in hopes you can put me at ease -- do try. Thank you.

Leonard Downie Jr.: It was prudent for the President to urge that all reporters leave Baghad because it is becoming very dangerous there. One of our reporters volunteered to stay anyway and we are closely monitoring his safety, which is paramount to us.

Bristol, Vt.: How does a reporter draw the line between being a neutral observer and helping U.S. troops? For example if soldiers are pinned down by a sniper, the journalist offers to use his camera to video around the corner of a building to help spot the sniper, that seems OK. What if a reporter gets a secret interview with an Iraqi missle crew that is inflicting casualties on U.S. troops, does the reporter disclose the location to our forces and if he does, will that convert him from a journalist to a spy? If he doesn't is he a traitor?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Reporters embedded with American forces are acting only as journalists and will not be engaging in any military activities. I don't usually deal in hypotheticals and yours are more far-fetched than most.

Rockville, Md.: I am concerned about the degree to which reporters/editors are susceptible to manipulation by the administration to get their message out.

For every administration, the relationship with reporters is naturally symbiotic but at what point is the reliance on sources, both named and unnamed, affecting the depth of everyday stories? The depth of investigation does not seem the same as is apparent with "special coverage" or Sunday stories.

For instance, much of the coverage for the last week or two has focused on the "shock and awe" strategy that the military was supposedly going to employ. Now that combat has begun, we see a very different strategy in place.

Also, we are now being hit with stories everywhere about the plans for after the war is over, including assertions that the occupation will pay for itself through the sale of oil. There has been little to no coverage of what the actual aftermath of the war will be like -- with a U.S. military governor, U.S. troops policing, U.S. responsibility for providing food and shelter for Iraqis given the years of neglect by Hussein and war damage of infrastructure. This is a much different paradigm than people of my generation (early 30s) have seen before.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have been and will continue to report as fully as we can at this stage about what will happen in Iraq after the war has ended. We have reporters here in Washington and in the Persian Gulf area specifically assigned this. We also have reporters assigned to cover the humanitarian needs that arise and how successfully they are dealt with. As to your larger question, we are aware of and report on the administration's efforts to use the media to get their message out. We had a front page story this week describing what the administration is doing and there will be more stories in the days ahead. It is very important to us to keep our free of manipulation by anyone.

Alexandria, Va.: Do journalistic rules differ between the paper and the Web? I notice that Howard Kurtz in his regular columns and chats, as well as Robert Kaiser in his chat last night, offer what seem like opinions (intelligent and well-reasoned to be sure) that I can't imagine would ever be published anywhere in the paper but the op-ed page. In an age in which cable hype and the Drudge Report too often get passed off as news, I would hope the Post would be vigilant about maintaining clear standards in both its paper and web versions. Maybe I'm just a stuffed shirt, but as you and Kaiser wrote in your book, the news business is fighting for its reputation and credibility every day.

washingtonpost.com: Kaiser was online with Instant Analysis last night. Kurtz's Media Backtalk is on Mondays at noon ET.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Howie Kurtz and Bob Kaiser are trying to give readers of washingtonpost.com the benefit of their expertise in their web chats, without expressing personal opinions. Chats are just that -- chats, as is this one. They are not news stories.

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

I am one of the many long-time readers who were dismayed at the pro-war stance your editorials chose to take. So how can I be assured that your coverage of the war will not be informed by the same bias?

Thank you.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have a strict separation here between news coverage and editorial opinions. We call it our separation between church (editorial opinions) and state (news coverage). I am in charge of the news coverage that appears in all pages of the newspaper except the editorial page and the op-ed page. Those two pages are under the control of the editor of the editorial page, Fred Hiatt. We report separately to the publisher. I never attend any meetings of the editorial boar and have no say in the editorial page's opinions. Often, I try not to even read the editorials so as not to be influenced by them. Fred and the other members of the editorial board have nothing to do with our news coverage.

Evanston, Ill.: The Pentagon has struck a brilliant propaganda coup with its "embedded reporter" strategy. Many of us believe:

1. Reporters will only be shuttled to areas of military success, avoiding contact with large civilian casualties and anti-American sentiment.

2. There will be orchestrated feel-good stories of American heroism that will supercede fact-based objective reporting and analysis.

3. Embedded reporters are already showing their understandable fear on TV -- it 's clear it would take incredible fortitude to write a negative story on the very soldiers who are protecting their lives.

Please tell me where I'm wrong, if you believe my common sense perception of this is off base. Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: The access that embedding provides our reporters gives them access to aspects of the war that we could never cover otherwise. After you have seen their coverage throughout the war, you can judge for yourself whether is was an independent of influence from the military as I believe it to be. But, in addition to the nine reporters we have embedded with military units, we have more than a dozen other reporters who will be working independently of the military in Iraq and its neighboring countries. Please also remember that all of these reporters and their hundreds of colleagues from other news organizations in the theater of war are risking their lives just as surely as American troops are.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Downie. I recently attended a World Affairs Council discussion with correspondents from the Washington Post. I would like to thank you for making your staff available to the public they serve. I believe the Post is setting a wonderful example for how the media can engage the American public in these crucial discussion.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks.

Stanardsville, Va.: At what point, if ever, would you consider pulling your journalists out of the field?

Leonard Downie Jr.: No, but we also do not force any of our reporters into the field. They have all volunteered for this reporting duty and have been specially trained in survival skills.

Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Downie: I work with mostly non-Americans who seem to have a completely different set of facts about the war than I do from reading U.S. newspapers.

Why doesn't The Post examine exactly how President Bush's friends and supporters in the oil and defense industries will profit from this war? How Bush's rhetoric leads people to connect Saddam Hussein with the terrorism of 9/11, though there is no connection? Or those reports in the European press on how oil companies are already seeking post-war control of Iraqi reserves? Who forged those reports on Iraq's weaponry, as Hans Blix's team alleged? Is the U.S. acting on false intelligence from those forged reports?

Would The Post lose access to the White House press corps if it examined such issues and upset the Bush administration?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have reported on the business activities, including oil, of the President and members of his administration. We intend to report closely on what happens to Iraqi oil after the war ends. We are continuing investigative reporting about the forged reports and expect to publish more about that soon.

Washington, D.C.: How many western journalists are currently in Baghdad and what measures have been taken for their safety? What is their primary means of communication, and will they be able to continue filing their stories with massive infrastructure damage or use of the "e-bomb?"

Leonard Downie Jr.: There are still dozens of western journalists in Baghdad who, in consultation with us by phone, are taking measures they believe are best to care for their safety.

Warrenton, Va.: I am writing on behalf of the Fauquier Falconer newspaper staff at Fauquier High school. Our adviser, Peg Culley wonders if you know how many western journalists are still in Iraq. One student asks, "If you lost your life in bringing information to the public about the war, would it be worth it?" Thank you for offering your insight as a professional journalist. We are enjoying reading the chat and learning about the challenges facing reporters.

-Jessica Lear, News Director

Leonard Downie Jr.: It would never be worth losing one's life to report a story. We emphasize that constantly with our reporters, including the reporter who has insisted on staying in Baghdad and the reporters who are traveling with American troops.

Silver Spring, Md.: How does the Post balance reporting in a timely nature -- being the ones to break a story -- with the responsibility not to compromise the element of surprise? I think back to Kosovo and can remember CNN with a camera at the end of the run way practically serving as forward intelligence for the enemy.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We take seriously our responsibility to not harm national security or the operational safety of American forces. We have voluntarily withheld from publication so far details of current military operations that would compromise the element of surprise. We will report those details once the military action is completed.

Washington, D.C.: With only one reporter currently in Iraq, how does to the Post plan to provide comprehensive coverage from both sides of the conflict? How do you plan to keep the coverage balanced and not just favoring the U.S. government's point of view?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have three reporters in Iraq now, the one in Baghdad and two others in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. We will be sending other reporters in when it is safe on the ground to independently report the impact of the war on the Iraqi people. And we also have reporters with American troops who will be moving in to Iraq.

Washington, D.C.: Can your journalists report whatever they see or is there an intermediate censure process with the U.S. government or military?

Leonard Downie Jr.: The reporters decide son their own after consultation with the military units they traveling with what to report. When it is important for operational safety of the military unit that no information get out for a crucial period of time, they ask the reporters not to contact us during that period.

Austin, Tex.: How many of your reporters covering the war have actually been in the military? If, as I suspect, the answer is "very few," isn't this another example of how the armed forces and the rest of the population have lost contact?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Many of the reporters we have embedded with the military have covered the military and other conflicts over the years. Rick Atkinson, who is embedded with the 101st Airborne, for example, covered the first Gulf War and wrote a book about it. He has also covered the Pentagon and is currently writing a three-volume history of World War II.

Macon, Ga.: Hello, we have heard a great deal about the so called "e Bomb" designed to knock out enemy communications. Will this "bomb" also knock out news media communications?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Good question. I guess we will find out.

Washington, D.C.: Why aren't the words "U.S. invasion" used by The Post to characterize what we are doing in Iraq? Does The Post believe we are "liberating" Iraq?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We do not assert in news stories that this war is "liberating" Iraq, except when we quote the President and administration officials saying so. Of course, this is an invasion, when it actually takes place. Readers can draw their own conclusion about what kind.

Arlington, Va.: How will The Washington Post balance the need for Americans and people around the world to know the circumstances of the war, including plans for U.S. troops and strategies of attack, with the need to keep certain information secret for the safety of the troops? The line between what should be reported and what should be help secret is often a fine one, and the decision must be made at a split second. How the does The Post go about making such difficult decisions?

Leonard Downie Jr.: You describe the situation very well. To make such decisions, we evaluate what the Pentagon and other parts of the administration tell us, we consult experts outside the government and we rely on the expertise of many of our news staff members, such as Pentagon correspondent Tom Ricks, who has been covering military affairs for many, many years. Then we make a decision.

Baltimore, Md.: Understanding that the op-ed and editorial page is separate from the news page, who is in charge of "analysis" stories?

These analyses sometimes seem to blur the separation between "church" and "state."

Leonard Downie Jr.: New analysis is part of our news coverage. It is intended to explain events covered in other news stories. By definition, it should analyse but not express person opinion.

New York, N.Y.: How is "embedding" journalists -- and the journalistic content it will produce -- different from, say, reporting the way it was done in Vietnam?

Leonard Downie Jr.: In Vietnam, embedding was informal. Journalists traveled with military units at will, without the formal request and assignment process that governs embedding in the Iraq War. However, we have been able to get most of the embedding assignments we sought, so, at this early point, I believe the current embedding process is serving readers well.

Columbus, Ohio: Are you comfortable with the level and style of coverage so far of this operation compared to the first Gulf War? There were many complaints from journalists and readers following Gulf War I. Are you satisfied coverage of the current operation can be comprehensive and reliable?

Leonard Downie Jr.: It's too early to tell. Many more reporters are traveling with military units this time, and we have learned a lot about maximizing independent coverage from other reporters during the Afghan War. So we will see.

Washington, D.C.: One thing nobody in the press seems to be talking about: I thought that the U.S. military was supposed to be so much better at the transportation of men, supplies, etc., than we were during Desert Storm. Sorry, but if the only divisions we have in place are the 1st Marine Division, the 3rd Infantry Mechanized, and the 101st Airborne, the latter of which only is now getting all of its helicopters, then it says here that our strategic airlift and sealift is still grossly inadequate.

How come nobody in the press is talking about that? How come nobody is giving an estimate of how long it will take for the 4th Infantry Division, now floating off the coast of Turkey, to get to Kuwait? Where is the rest of the V Corp? That is the corp that has the 1st Armored Division and the 1st Infantry Division in Europe. Are they still coming? Or do we not have enough ships for them?

Why doesn't the media hold the Pentagon's feet to the fire on this?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have published stories detailing the pace at which units and equipment have been deployed. It is too early to draw any of the conclusions you suggest about how well the deployment has gone. We will keep reporting.

Chicago, Ill.: Let me see if I understand the implication of one of your earlier responses to a question about embedded reporters where you mention the risks these reporters take: 250,000 soldiers are risking their lives in probably much more direct ways and of course we're hugely grateful; they're doing THEIR jobs wonderfully, as we count on YOUR reporters to do theirs: the job of purveying reality, not a sanitized version of it. It sounds like you may be subtly suggesting we accept a different level of truth or access to the on-the-ground reality or some compromise. This is precisely the problem which may be a function of the "embedded" absolute control the Pentagon will have over all aspects of the reporters' work, apparently including editing of stories. Would you indeed imply that this tradeoff is good for the trusting public?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We expect the full, unvarnished truth from our embedded reporters. Even though they may not be able report everything they see immediately for operational security reasons, we will eventually publish everything they see, unsanitized and uncensored.

Boston, Mass.: How do reporters communicate back with the home office? What technology do they use (e.g. satellite phones, etc.)? And what restrictions are there on open communication?

Leonard Downie Jr.: They use satellite phones. The primary restriction is satellite capacity.

Philadelphia, Pa.: How do you answer the questions raised by Michael Getler, the paper's ombudsman in his column Sunday about the Post's failure to cover adequately major dissents from senators like Byrd and Kennedy and former Secretaries of State and generals?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We covered this dissent, but Getler thought we should have given some of he stories more prominence in the paper. We are never perfect in our coverage and we were slow early on to recognize the rapid development of anti-war sentiment. But we have been covering it fully and prominently for some time now and will continue to.

Milwaukee, Wis.: It seems to me that America has not entered a war with the citizenry so divided in living memory. It also seems that this fact should be receiving major news coverage. Will it do so? If not, why not?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We report regularly on opinion polls and other measures of divided American opinion over the war. We have also reported on the relative isolation of the Bush administration in the rest of the world.

Gaithersburg, Md.: At the risk of fawning, let me congratulate you and the Post for your coverage of the events in and around Iraq. The graphics are great, the reporting is comprehensive -- as a subscriber, I feel I'm getting value.

Now, a comment -- to date, The Post has reported on the lack of evidence provided by the administration that (in my view) justifies the war (Walter Pincus's stories have been notable in this area.) I sincerely hope the Post continues this. NOT to discredit the administration, but to ensure that readers like me have the best information possible about what is happening in Iraq, and our country's future.

Thanks again.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We will indeed continue such reporting. And thanks for a brief dose of fawning. It feels good.

New Jersey: What can we expect to see on the Internet that we won't see on television or get through regular news sources (newspapers, radio, etc.)?

Leonard Downie Jr.: In the case of washingtonpost.com, you have been and will continue to get expert and on-the-scene reporting from Washington Post journalists before it appears in our newspaper, plus video and audio from them and other sources.

washingtonpost.com: All of that reporting is available in the Confronting Iraq Special Report.

Falls Church, Va.: Do Post articles have to be screened by the Pentagon before they can be published? If so, can you describe the "sanitization" process?

Leonard Downie Jr.: No they do not. As I explained, earlier we make independently the final decisions about what we publish.

Denver, Colo.: Hello Mr. Downie:

While many of our most talented reporters are overseas, do we still have enough reporters in the U.S. to record the mood of the country? My sense is that when body bags start rolling into Dover, Del., or when we start discovering that Saddam did indeed get rid of all those WMD over the past 12 years and that they're now sitting at our own doorsteps, that the real stories will be here in the U.S.

Is the press corps ready for what's likely to come in the U.S. -- or have they all, like ants, migrated to the picnic in Iraq?

We need reporters here to tell the story!

Leonard Downie Jr.: Yes, we have reporters stationed throughout the country reporting on the mood of the country. We will publish one such story in tomorrow's paper.

Paxton, Ill.: I know your first obligation is to covering the news, but I am curious about what must be an important secondary obligation at a well-run business like The Washington Post. How do you accommodate the vast (and presumably unbudgeted) expense of war coverage? Is this offset by increased newspaper sales? Do you and the owners worry about this at all, or do you just figure you'll pay now and worry about the books later?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We try to live within our budget, but the war will cost money -- both the expenses of covering it and the loss of some revenue from jittery advertisers.

Washington, D.C.: How do reporters deal with the physical danger and mental challenges of reporting a war from the scene of activity?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Each copes in their own way. Each has had personal safety training. I cannot tell you how much I admire their dedication and courage.

Richmond, Va.: It seems that the administration (particularly the White House and Department of Defense) have put a lot of thought and planning into the PR/news aspects of this war (embedding, "war" rooms, daily "message" faxes, etc.). What are the challenges the Post staff faces in reporting beyond the information that is delivered by administration sources? And, perhaps more importantly to me as a reader, do you have checks and balances in place to examine your coverage "after the fact" to make sure you're getting the whole story? Do you anticipate a lot of "mea culpas"?

Thanks. And I appreciate the Post's online coverage of this and other events.

Leonard Downie Jr.: We are indeed covering each day's events, how the administration interprets them and what more we can find out about really happened. We re-examine our coverage day and try to make the next day's better. As Ben Bradlee always said, the great think about newspapers is that we publish again tomorrow.

Atlanta, Ga.: Besides the Washington Post Web site and newspaper, how do you get information about the war personally?

Leonard Downie Jr.: From talking with our many reporters and editors, our interviews with news sources, what is being reported live on television.

Springfield, Va.: How much experience they have covering the military is nice to know, but the question was: how many of your reporters are military veterans? I'm guessing the answer is closer to zero than you care to admit.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I just don't know. I haven't asked.

Shelburne Falls, Mass.: The concept of “Shock and Awe” warfare was set forth by its architects and authors in “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance,” a book published by the National Defense University (December 1996), an institution funded by the Pentagon.  The concept came into the news recently when on Jan. 24, 2003 CBS News reported and confirmed that the Shock and Awe concept was the basis for the U.S. war plan for Iraq. (quoted from http://www.notinourname.net/Shock_and_Awe.html)

If this is indeed the case, why hasn't there been discussion of "Shock and Awe" in the Post? If the U.S. follows this doctrine, will you fully report the the horrific impact it will have on the people of Iraq, as well as on U.S. international relations?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We will indeed report thoroughly and independently on the impact of all U. S. military actions in Iraq. That is why we have so many reporters there.

Long Island, N.Y.: My high school journalism students were wondering if the information provided to the media will be censored to the extent that it was in 1991. Has anything you have encountered so far, in the early hours of the war, indicated whether this may be the case?

Leonard Downie Jr.: As I said earlier, nothing is being censored, but some reporting is being delayed so as not to reveal information about the location or intentions of military units that would endanger them. We will report that information later.

Clarksville, Tenn.: As a military wife I have a great interest in OpSec (operational security), it will help keep my husband and others alive. The policy of embedding journalists seems to be working fine now, but I remember some of the questions asked by reporters during the first Gulf War. They clearly had no idea that what they were asking, talking about, and doing were putting my husband's life at risk. Please reassure me that your reporters will not cry censorship when the truth is safety of our soldiers demands silence at certain moments. Do you have a policy in place to make sure that sensitive information that may lead to the deaths of service members is not revealed, and what do you do in the event that sensitive information is released?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I've discussed this several times during this chat, but I will repeat that we have already withheld from publication for the moment information that could endanger lives.

Washington, D.C.: Will you be covering antiwar protests that take place in the nation's capital on the front page?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have already done so several times in recent weeks.

Burnsville, Minn.: Is The Post working with any cable or network TV stations? Why or why not? What is your opinion about the New York Times and Boston Globe partnering with CNN?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We have had a relationship with NBC for some years now that is similar to the CNN arrangement with the New York Times Co. You can see and hear our reporters throughout the day on MSNBC and often on NBC.

Columbus, Ohio: The Washington Post was not called on during President Bush's March 6 press conference, an event the president himself admitted was scripted. Do you take such slights seriously? Are you concerned about possible future snubs if your coverage of the war is not up to the administration's standards?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I have no idea why the President skipped over our reporter at the press conference, but it does not matter to us. We do most of our reporting in other ways. We do tailor our reporting to please this or any other administration.

Silver Spring, Md.: What were the conversations like before preparing the emergency preparedness guide in last Sunday's paper?

Was there concern that such a guide would increase fear about events that we really will not be able to control, prevent or adequately deal with?

Was there concern that the guide was not doing a service so much as raising a billion more questions?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We produced the emergency preparedness guide in response to many, many requests for such information. I believe that such information assuages rather than raises fears.

Arlington, Va.: How have the reporters who are "embedded" with the troops they are covering been trained? Did they get military training? Did they have to pass physical fitness tests?

Leonard Downie Jr.: They were not given special physical exams but needed to be able to keep up with their military units. Some received special training provided by the Pentagon at military bases. Others received training from private organizations of former special forces troops.

College Station, Tex.: Did you leave "not" out of your reply to Columbus, OH about the Presidential press conference?

You do "not" tailor your reporting or you tailor your reporting?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks. You are correct. I type too fast. We do not tailor our reporting to please any administration.

Jackson, Miss.: Do you anticipate any chats such as this one direct with a reporter in Iraq where he will be available to answer e-mails? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Many reporters already have been participating in these discussions. See our transcripts page, which lists all of the discussions we've done thus far with reporters in the field. In addition, we have discussions scheduled with Peter Baker in Kuwait tomorrow and Karl Vick in Northern Iraq on Monday.

Leonard Downie Jr.: As our washingtonpost.com friends stated, our reporters are doing chats whenever they can.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Thanks to all of you who asked questions. Len Downie

washingtonpost.com: FYI, here is the list of Post reporters embedded in the field.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company