Lewinsky and The Post
Friday, January 22, 1999
As executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr. has directed The Post's coverage of the investigation and President Clinton's impeachment. On Friday morning, he answered questions about the newspaper's editorial decisions over the last year and the difficulties of covering a White House scandal that led to the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years. The transcript follows.
Ireland: Do you believe that the overall treatment and manner of investigation of President Clinton has (i) infringed any of his constitutional rights and (ii) been fair in the overall?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Not surprisingly, so many have asked questions about our coverage of Monica Lewinsky and the President's impeachment that I will begin with those. We had no idea when we published our first story just over a year ago that it would lead to Clinton's impeachment, although he already had been under intense investigation by the independent counsel for years at that point.
Vienna, Va.: First, could you remind the audience exactly how many stories (including opinion pieces) on Lewinsky and the scandal the Post has printed over the past year? Second, could you explain why the Post thought it was rational, justified and not excessive to print THAT MANY stories on this subject? Thank you.
washingtonpost.com: Our site has a searchable archive of Post stories on the investigation and impeachment, with about 1,300 articles in the last 12 months -- not including editorials and columns.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We believe our extensive coverage has been justified by the great importance of the only the second impeachment of a president in the nation's history -- an impeachment that likely would have occurred even if we had not covered the case so thoroughly. So we had a duty to readers here and throughout the country -- and especially to those involved in the case here in Washington -- to make the record as complete as possible and let others decide what to do with the information. By the way, we have published thousands and thousands of stories about countless other subjects during the same time. Our Monica coverage has not pushed anything else out of the newspaper.
washingtonpost.com: Has the public's apparent lack of interest in this story influenced your decision making?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Much of the public may not be comfortable with the impeachment of the president, but it is not true that there is a lack of public interest, whatever people may say. To take just one measurement, washingtonpost.com traffic has peaked at record levels on days of major Monica and impeachment coverage.
Dallas, Tex.: Why do you claim you introduced Lewinsky to the world, when The Drudge Report put out the story out that Newsweek decided to wait on?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have never made any claims about who was first to discover the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship and the independent counsel's investigation of it. It is a fact only that our Jan. 21 story was the first accurate, complete media account of what was going on. As you said, Newsweek (a Washington Post-owned newsmagazine that is completely independent of the Post editorially) decided not to publish its story and Drudge had reported only that fact on the Internet.
Phoenix, Arizona: A local Phoenix radio station reported that Clinton-ally James Carville was arrested for attempting to shoot his wife with a stolen gun. Reports also said Carville used a knife to destroy their living room sofa. Any confirmation/or refute to this story?
washingtonpost.com: We've received a surprising number of questions about this hoax, which Post media correspondent Howard Kurtz reports today began as a bogus news report reprinted on a Usenet newsgroup. The story was picked up and later retracted by a conservative radio network. With Larry Flynt investigations and false "love child" stories floating around, how do you decide when to keep gossip -- especially gossip that isn't true -- out of the newspaper?
Leonard Downie Jr.: This is only the latest of hoaxes, rumors and inaccurate reports about the Lewinsky-Clinton-Whitewater matters that has been widely distributed on the Internet, over the air or in print. From the beginning, a year ago, we made it a strict rule that we would not publish anything in the newspaper or on washingtonpost.com that was not confirmed and accurate -- and we have succeeded in that effort.
Albany, N.Y.: Why the level of suspicion about the motivation of the president in his decision to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq in critical moments of his current situation?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The so-called "wag the dog" question was most certainly an issue in Washington, where many members of congress raised suspicions about it. And we have covered this issue thoroughly; please see these stories in our packages and archives.
Washington, D.C.: How did a guy as good looking as you get sidelined into the news racket? Wasn't Hollywood your true calling?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Fortunately, I am a lot better looking than Bob Kaiser, who may have submitted this question, so I nosed him out for this job.
Washington, D.C.: I think it was last weekend that I read an opinion column about Tony Williams not being "black enough." How important do you really think that race will be to our new mayor? How do you decide when it is an important aspect of your news stories?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The article this questioner is referring to was written by an African-American voter in the District of Columbia and published in our Outlook opinion section last Sunday. When Washington, D. C. residents make clear that they believe race is an issue in local politics or local issues, we cover it.
Arlington, Va.: Sheeeeesh! All this impeachment talk. The Post used to be a decent newspaper. I loved reading your international stuff, but it seems like I have to chomp through so much other impeachment stuff. Anyway, is it just me or has your international (and even local) coverage suffered because of the Clinton scandal?
Leonard Downie Jr.: As I said earlier, nothing else had been crowded out of the newspaper or curtailed by impeachment coverage. We printed as much or more international news in the Post the past year as we ever have. We even increased the number of our foreign correspondents to 23 by adding a bureau in West Africa. Soon, we will be adding another new bureau in Brazil.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: How come most of your columnists don't list their e-mail addresses at the bottom of their columns? Are their ideas and opinions so fragile as not to withstand the onslaught of opposing views? (Aside: The Internet is a different medium and the rules and conventions of print journalism in many cases not only don't apply they seem arcane or stodgy by comparison.)
Leonard Downie Jr.: Some of our columnists do publish their Internet addresses; you can see them in the paper. Others have not yet moved so fully into the digital age; be nice to them, they are a bit older.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Why are you not hounding Clinton as you did Richard Nixon? Do you think a habitual liar should occupy the presidency?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Sorry if I chuckle a bit at that one. We have covered Clinton very aggressively -- witness the implied complaints from some of our other questioners this morning -- and the President and the First Lady do believe we are hounding them. However, we believe it is our responsibility to the voters to cover every president fully, fairly and aggressively -- holding them accountable to the citizens.
washingtonpost.com: The lead reporter and lead editor on the Lewinsky story are both under 35, as were Woodward and Bernstein. Is chasing after presidents a young person's job?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Interesting observation about the culture of journalism. Chasing any big story, working around the clock every day of the week for months on end is indeed easier for younger people. However (without revealing specific ages and getting myself in real trouble), a number of the other key reporters and editors on the Monica/impeachment coverage are well over 35. And I am old enough (56) to have also been one of the editors on the Watergate story.
Arlington, Va.: Has the Post had a opportunity to evaluate the budget impact of the numerous proposals made by the President? It seems to me that these proposals can't help but be very expensive. What kind of an impact is this going to have on balancing the budget and was it done to influence the impeachment hearings? Thanks...
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have had this week and will continue to pursue very detailed coverage and analysis of the President's State of the Union proposals for the budget surplus, Social Security, Medicare, etc. We already have published a wide range of views about their merit and about the debate they create between Clinton's desire to use the surplus for these programs and the Republicans' desire to cut taxes. Please check into our coverage in the National, Business and Politics portions of washingtonpost.com.
Washington, D.C.: According to an article in the Village Voice, Howard Kurtz was essentially ordered to write a story defending Sue Schmidt against the charges leveled by Brill's Content. This was done despite the fact that Kurtz had an obvious conflict of interest. What is the Post's arrangement with Mr. Kurtz and his conflicts of interest?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Another question that causes me to chuckle a bit because I have first-hand bruising experience with Howie's strong sense of independence as a media reporter. When he believes he has caught us in mistake, he hits us hard. When he talks to me, I have to check whether or not we are on the record. Howie's beat is the media, including us, so he has to cover us and we try to edit him at arm's length; we have no choice unless we are going to ban him from also covering The Post, which would leave a big hole for our readers. The story in question did not defend Sue Schmidt; it reported on her work. It is Brill's Content that has revealed a bias against Schmidt and the Post's reporting on Lewinsky and Clinton.
Greeley, Colo.: Who's Bob Kaiser?
Leonard Downie Jr.:
Sorry. Bob Kaiser, an old friend and colleague of mine, has been at the Post for 35 years and served as managing editor from 1991 until last year. He is now an Associate Editor and writer, whose work you can read in the paper and on washingtonpost.com.
Washington, D.C.: Do you agree with Bob Kaiser's letter to readers last year that defended the Post's use of unnamed sources? The issue at hand was the Post's practice of reporting leaks of grand jury testimony from Ken Starr's office and then attributing it to "unnamed sources."
Leonard Downie Jr.: I would respectfully urge washingtonpost.com editors to put Bob Kaiser's public letter to readers about anonymous sources into this discussion space because it is an excellent statement of our efforts to have sources on the record whenever possible but also the necessity to publish some information from unnamed sources IF we are able to confirm it with other sources, records, etc. to our satisfaction.
Bob Kaiser's letter to readers can be found here.
Vienna, Va.: Your earlier answer to my question about the number of Post stories on Monica and the scandal dodged my question. Your response was to say that it was the paper's responsibility to cover the only presidential impeachment in 100+ years. I did not ask about the Post's coverage of the impeachment. I asked about its coverage of Monica and the scandal PRIOR to the impeachment. So let me repeat my question: could you justify the Post's rampant coverage of the whole Lewinsky brouhaha even before impeachment became a reality rather than a possibility?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The possibility of impeachment of the president alone, which was clearly strong very early in the Lewinsky portion of the independent counsel investigation, more than required thorough coverage in my view. So did the issue of such conduct with a subordinate employee inside the White House itself. As I said, we also covered many other subjects thoroughly during the same time period, so our readers had plenty in the newspaper to occupy them if they chose to skip all the Monica coverage.
Carlsbad, Calif.: Is this affair the result of Clinton being the first information age president, and ignorant of the dangers of public exposure of private behaviour, or did Clinton willingly get caught to make a statement about sexual freedom or the opposite, the need to return to a more conservative morality?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The intensity and impact of the coverage clearly has something to do with the information age. I do not know what Clinton's motivations were; he must speak to that himself.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Post has been fair about covering the excesses and shady dealings of Ken Starr and his office? Some of us out here think you treated him with kid gloves compared to the scathing coverage of Clinton. Please explain.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We believe we have also covered Starr and his office aggressively and examined investigative and prosecutorial tactics that have raised questions and controversy -- such as how Lewinsky was treated at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, the explicit sexual content of the Starr report, the sweeping conclusions it drew on many points disputed by other lawyers, etc.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Why is the hockey writing in the sports section so bad? The paper used to have good hockey writers like Bob Fachet and Dave Sell.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Well, to paraphrase those NHL ads at the MCI Center, shouldn't impeachment be more like hockey? I guess I would need more specifics about Rachel Alexander's coverage of the Caps to know what you are referring to because I am a hockey fan and like her coverage a lot, as I did that of her predecessors.
Des Moines, Iowa: When you first decided to write the story did you ever think about how it would affect the country financially? After all there has been so much money spent on the Clinton scandal, it could be money that could have been spent on something that would help the country.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have often updated our readers on the cost of the Starr investigation and covered the continuing controversy over that issue. It will be one of many issues covered still more when it comes time for Congress later this year to decide about renewing the independent counsel law.
washingtonpost.com: How has the Internet affected The Post's coverage of this story? Does the 24-hour news cycle change the way stories are written, edited and selected?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have not changed our procedures or standards of news reporting, writing, editing, story selecting, etc. because of the 24-hour Web news cycle. However, our lead impeachment reporter, Peter Baker, often files daytime updates to washingtonpost.com. These are written by him and edited by Post editors in the same way as the stories he later writes for the next day's editions of the ink-on-paper newspaper. We have resisted the temptation to rush onto the Web scoops that have not been thoroughly reported, checked and edited in our usual fashion.
Do you think the Post and other news organizations have sufficiently probed the events leading up to the expansion of the independent counsel's authority to include Monica Lewinsky? Or have the Paula Jones's lawyers, Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg and Kenneth Starr gotten off, for whatever reason, with insufficient scrutiny?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Yes, it is possible for news coverage to sustain public interest in a story and even play a role in how the authorities act -- witness Watergate in the 70s, Iran-Contra in the 80s and the Somalia famine in the 90s. But in this case, the momentum of the independent counsel and Republicans in Congress played a much larger role than our coverage in moving everyone to where we are now. We have reconstructed the expansion of the independent counsel's investigation many times and carefully examined the questions it raises. We are always open to new information about that or anything else.
Charlottesville, Va.: The Washington Post editorials concerning the year-long scandal of President Clinton have been somewhat reserved. Unlike other editorials, which are often lucid and to the point, the commentaries on both Clinton and congress have been ambiguous. The newspaper has avoided creating a clear opinion; most editorials are summations of the previous day’s news, with wry comments inserted at key places. While there is no easy response to the impeachment proceedings, could not the paper be more forthcoming?
Leonard Downie Jr.: This good question gives me the opportunity to remind everyone of the strict separation at The Washington Post between news gathering (and the news pages in the paper), which I supervise, and the Editorial and Op-Ed Pages, which are directed by Meg Greenfield, the Editor of the Editorial Page. I am afraid you will have direct your question to her.
Arlington, Va.: What does your paper have against the Redskins? You would hardly know they were playing by the dearth of coverage they get.
Leonard Downie Jr.: One more chuckle. I am certain we will now hear from the fans of all the other sports who complain that coverage of them is overly restricted by our quite extensive coverage of the Redskins (Susan O'Malley will be calling any second now.)
We love your progressive attitude towards the Internet....offering most of your newspaper coverage to people outside the beltway.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Actually, all of the contents of the entire newspaper are published on washingtonpost.com everyday and then stored in its archives. They are organized differently than in the ink-on-paper newspaper, so you have learn how to navigate through the site to everything you want to read.
Arlington, Va.: I was joking about the Redskins. They take up too much of the paper.
Leonard Downie Jr.: It IS Susan O'Malley. When did you move to Arlington?
Herndon, Va.: In hindsight, is there ANYTHING you would fault about the Post's Lewinsky coverage?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Yes, we have been too slow at some points to focus on the most important coverage challenge of the moment. Like the rest of the media, we were taken too much by the sideshow of William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's first lawyer. We placed too much emphasis on speculation by talking head "experts" on what they thought would happen next; they, and we, were usually wrong in trying to predicting the future of the case.
Bethesda, Md.: I have noticed that there are far more conservative columnists than there are progressive columnists. Why is there a need to have Glassman and Samuelson and not someone representing more mainstream economic views? I am an economist and I think it would be helpful for people to have a better understanding of the subject?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Last answer: We (and Meg Greenfield regarding the op-ed page) try to present a wide range of views in the newspaper's opinion columns. I suggest you watch the new op-ed column on business by David Ignatius, former Assistant Managing Editor for our Business section. You will not find it liberal or conservative, but you will find it well-reported, provocatively written and cutting edge.
Thanks to everyone who asked questions and expressed views this morning. It is important to know what is on our readers' minds and for you to know how we are going about our work for you.