Q&A with Leonard Downie Jr.
"Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Good afternoon, I'm your host, Bob Levey. My guest today is The Washington Post's Executive Editor, Leonard Downie Jr. Downie's journalism career began, he says, when his fifth grade English teacher started a newspaper at his Cleveland, Ohio elementary school. Downie became the editor and "realized then and there that this was my calling," he says.
After graduating from Ohio State in June, 1964 (with B.A. and M.A. degrees in journalism and political science), Downie joined The Washington Post as a summer intern, becoming a full time reporter a few months later. During his years at the paper, Downie has worked as a local investigative reporter covering crime, the courts and local governments and as a city desk editor. In 1971-72 he traveled around the United States and Europe studying urban problems under an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship.
Downie has also been The Post's deputy metropolitan editor, helped supervise Watergate coverage, served as London correspondent for three years, and was the paper's national editor. He became managing editor of The Washington Post in 1984, under Ben Bradlee, succeeding him in 1991 as executive editor.
On Friday, join us for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," an open-agenda conversation about anything on your mind, in the news or in Bob's Monday through Friday columns . Have a question about D.C. politics, consumer issues, or world affairs? Bring it up on "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," and let the Webbed world know where you stand.
alexandria, va: I've been in the Washington area, having The Post as a local newspaper for ten years. I've noticed no effort or progress on part of The Post toward shaking its image as a "left-wing rag". As a matter of policy, are there ever attempts to promote a greater degree of objective analysis and less bias? (I hate to think that The Post's reputation will never change.)
Leonard Downie Jr.: We work hard here to not be biased and not appear to be biased. All our reporters and editors, for example, are prohibited from engaging in any political or interest group activity except voting. And I even refuse to vote so that I never make up my mind which party, candidate or ideology should be in power. You might note that our editorial page these days is considered somewhat conservative in some areas, but the editorial page is kept entirely separate from our news coverage.
Bob Levey: I'm no prude, as you well know. But I read the Post with my kids every morning, and some of the breakfast-table questions over the last year have made me blush. What about taste and children? Have the rules been rewritten forever? Can we ever get back to the "breakfast table standard" of yesteryear?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob, I share your shock on this one. I never, never imagined when I started at the Post more than 30 years ago that we would be reporting on the kinds of subjects in the kinds of language that has been the case with the Clinton/Lewinsky story. We have tried to keep the news coverage acceptable reading for a teenager (who read and see similar stuff elsewhere, especially on TV) and we have tried to keep certain language out of the news columns, except when it appeared in the Starr Report and gave readers a prominent warning about that.
washington, dc: In Howard Kurtz' Thursday column, he suggested that the House impeachment vote had proved the media was right about how big the Clinton scandal was, suggesting that the media was simply "following" the story unfolding in the Capitol and the White House, rther than being a driving force behind the story. Is it not possible that all the media attention drove Congress to act as it did?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Although I was involved in our Watergate coverage when The Washington Post did make a difference in the outcome, I am usually careful not to give too much credit to the media for causing institutions or citizens to act. I think our reporting (and being first) on the Lewinsky story has played a small role, perhaps, but the driving forces have been Ken Starr and congressional Republicans.
Bob Levey: It's an old rap but it still makes me smile: You have to read The Post from cover to cover because you never know where you'll find a front-page story. In fact, hasn't the editing of The Post gotten much better since you and I were pups?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Sure, because you and I are do doing such great jobs, Bob. Seriously, this profession has become a lot more professional during our three decades plus at this stand. We even have physicians covering medicine and lawyers covering the law. And editors are doing a better job editing the paper and making news decisions, although it is still easy to make big mistakes when meeting deadlines every night 365 days each year.
Washington, DC: I have heard your publisher, Don Graham, say that the Post is a local and not a national newspaper. Yet here you are on the World Wide Web. Does this mean the Post now sees itself as local, national and international in its presence?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are still first and foremost a local newspaper. More than one-third of our newsroom staff covers local news of one kind or another. But washingtonpost. com has overnight created an on-line national edition of the paper that we take very seriously. Much of what we would cover intensively anyway for our local audience, because we are the capital (such as impeachment, is of great interest to this new national audience.
Bethesda, MD: Is the amount of space devoted to editorial material--text, in other words--changed under the new reformatting to a smaller page? The outgoing Ombudsman said, in one of her last articles, that her column was reduced by 3 inches by the change, and clearly the comics pages have shrunk. Are we still getting the same number of columnists on the op-ed page, etc.?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have increased the number of pages in the newspaper to make up for most of the news space that would have been lost by making the page smaller. We could not do that with the Editorial and Op-ed pages, however, so they each contain slightly fewer words.
Bob Levey: I know you and other top editors tear out what's left of your hair over young readers--how to attract them, how to keep them. Yet they don't seem to read us as regularly as their parents, if at all. What's the Downie strategy to deal with this?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Younger readers are obviously very important to our future and so we want to do a better job of covering subjects of greatest interest to them (everything from pop culture to public safety to money) and make the newspaper more attractive to them in appearance. But I also believe more young readers are turning to the .com version of the newspaper and we have to figure out that relationship with the ink on paper newspaper.
Vineyard Haven, MA: What do you think journalism will look like in 20 years?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Newspapers will still be around because they are unique way of packaging news (and more books are sold every year than the year before, too) but much journalism will be available via computers in whatever form they take and, so far, the public has exhibited a strong appetite for brand-name well-edited, authoritative news on the web.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Don't take my word; ask the White House occupants if THEY thank we are pro-Clinton. that have been very unhappy with our very aggressive coverage of this administration in general and the Lewinsky case in particular.
Bob Levey: When I started at The Post in 1967, there were four women on the staff, and none of them were editors. Now there are hundreds. In fact, the four editors who edit my column are all female. Will a woman sit in your chair some day?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob, without a doubt a woman will be executive editor of the Post at some time. A majority of reporters here now work for the women editors who are in charge of our National, Metro, Financial and others staffs -- a fact probably not well known outside the newsroom.
Washington, DC: Mr. Downie, In retrospect, how could the Post's coverage of the Clinton scandal have been improved? Do you think the paper has been an impartial reporter of unfolding events or has it been a participant?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thank God, we have made no mistakes in our Lewinsky coverage and I really believe we have been impartial. Our biggest problem (along with the rest of the media) was in keeping up with the political response to the scandal. It took us too long to figure out the wide gap between inside the beltway and the rest of the country.
I'm really surprised that our judicial system can find unbiased juries when you print stories about crimes with information that hasn't even been released yet. I'm speaking of the story about the three women shot on Beltsville Road in 1996. You printed a detailed article about their findings before they announced them. Is it really so important for you to scoop not only the competition but also the law enforcement organizations themselves?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I believe it is very important for citizens to know that the law enforcement system is doing its job in instances such as this one; citizens need to be reassured that the culprits were being sought and will now be dealt with by the legal system. I have never yet seen the case where it was impossible to empanel a jury because of media influence.
Bob Levey: You followed a legend--Ben Bradlee, probably the greatest newspaper editor of the century. What's it like to succeed a journalist who is so renowned?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Very intimidating. But I know I am not Ben and that being myself is just fine. He remains my most important mentor and a very, very good friend.
Washington, DC: Are you satisfied that the Post is providing its readers with a full view of world news, particularly news from developing countries that is not about disaster or disease?
Leonard Downie Jr.: This is a great challenge because the world is so vast and so full of interesting developments these days. Unlike most newspapers, we have continued to expand the number of foreign correspondents (we added a correspondent in west Africa last year) and continue to invest a lot in training our correspondents to report deeply on the world and not just on crises.
Bob Levey: The Boston Globe had twin disasters this summer--two columnists who were fired for incredible ethical lapses. Has this soured the public on newspapers in general? Has it led to any new protections against lying and distorting at The Post?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I used the occasion of problems cropping up elsewhere to remind our staff firmly that deceiving readers or editors, or committing plagiarism, gets the death penalty at the Post: immediate firing.
McLean, VA: Dear Mr Downie: Don't you think TOM SHALES deserves more money and longer vacations? Seriously now. SEARCH YOUR CONSCIENCE.
Leonard Downie Jr.: Tom, if you don't stop bothering me with all these nice people listening, I am going to tell them how old you are.
Half an hour remaining with Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post
Silver Spring, MD: Why is it that every time Bob Woodward has a new book, it seems like the POST deigns excerpts worthy of front page coverage,usually above the fold?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob Woodward is one of the best reporters in the business and usually produces important news in his books, the research for which is often coordinated with his reporting for the Post. If the news is front page, we owe it to readers to put it on the front page.
Ft. Myer Heights, VA: In your opinion, what types of stories are hurt the most by the large amount of space you must give to the Clinton stuff?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Please don't tell our publisher this, but the news space devoted to the Clinton stories has largely been added, at considerable expense, to our normal news hole. Therefore, nothing else has been kept out of the paper to make room for it.
Bob Levey: Looking back over the last year of Clinton-Lewinsky, I'd say the press in general (and The Post in particular) have turned in an excellent performance. Most of the stories have been dead-solid accurate and fair, despite all the waves of spinning and denial. But I don't see the public applauding journalists. In fact, the public seems to hate and doubt us more than ever. Why this paradox?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Because readers are uncomfortable with the Clinton/Lewinsky developments, as they should be, they sometimes lash out against the media's coverage. ;Our job is to give readers the facts they deserve and need in this democracy and not worry about whether we are popular for doing so.
Washington, DC: Why does the Post insist on covering the Redskins like they are the only game in town? Because of the transient nature of this place, many people do not care for the endless hype of a mediocre team that hasn't had a good season in six years. More soccer coverage may increase readership from younger demos
Leonard Downie Jr.: We cover soccer more and more every year, probably doing it better and giving more attention than any other metropolitan area newspaper. But many, many, many readers still want wall-to-wall coverage of the Redskins.
Granville, Ohio: I went looking for a poll on the web yesterday and couldn't find one. Since I have never in my life been called on a poll, and am a registered and active voter, I consider the "poll data" to be bogus and its importance to be exaggerated by the media.[edited for space]
Leonard Downie Jr.: I used to be a skeptic, too, but I have have seen that our polling, which is done very carefully, is a remarkably accurate snapshot of public opinion.
Alexandria, VA: Mr. Downie: Who and what determines what will appear on the front page of the Post? [edited for space]
Leonard Downie Jr.: I, the managing editor or whoever is filling in when we are away, determine what goes on the front page after day-long consultations with our colleagues. We try to use the front page to give our readers as full a picture as possible of what is most important and interesting in the news that day.
Bob Levey: The Janet Cooke Pulitzer Prize fiasco happened 18 years ago, yet it dogs us at The Post still. Here's what dogs me still: the sense that we in the business haven't learned the right lesson. Why don't we just stop seeking prizes, and entering prize contests? Who really cares (other than our mothers and other journalists) whether we win any?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Well, I worry that we are too prize-happy, too. Yet our photographers, who have won every major national photography prize every year for several years now, are the best in the business -- and it's nice for them to have that recognition from their professional peers. By the way, much of their best work can be seen in washingtonpost.com's photo packages.
Washington, DC: When will we see color photos on the front page?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Good question! Mark your calendar for Thursday, January 28!
Bob Levey: If you read American newspapers other than The Post and the New York Times, you see the same thing from sea to shining sea: skimpy stories, splashy graphics, little or no foreign coverage. Is this the result of USA Today? Of chain ownership?
Leonard Downie Jr.: It is the result of newspaper owners, as mainly chain owners, cutting spending on news coverage to make bigger profits. By contrast, USA Today has actually done better at covering serious news in recent years. Here at the Post, we are blessed with the best possible owners and we are investing in expanded news coverage, along with the new printing presses that will put color on the front page.
Bob Levey: You and I agree on many, many things, but we have always bitterly disagreed over the subject of photos running with columns. I say yes; you say no. Obviously, you win (and will keep on winning). But most other papers do it, and the sun keeps rising. Tell the truth: Is it because I look like Newt Gingrich?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Yup, you have hit on the truth. We would have no hope of increasing the circulation of The Washington Post if we published your or Courtland Milloy's pictures every day.
Silver Spring MD: To what extent does your polling dept communicate with your editorial dept? [edited for space]
Leonard Downie Jr.: Our news polling department is part of the newsroom; it reports to me. We regard polling as a sophisticated reporting tool to help us better report on what is going on in the country.
Washington, DC: What do you think of this medium--the one you're using right now? Do you think live chat has a future in journalism? Aside from it being slow...
Leonard Downie Jr.: I enjoy it. It is good for our readers to be able chat with me and others in the newsroom. And it is popular with washingtonpost.com users, so we are going to increase its frequency.
Springfield, VA: I keep reading and and seeing in the media that President Clinton's approval rating is up. Who are these pollsters contacting? Is is a target audience favorable to the President? The majority of the people I come in contact with, both liberals and conservatives, differ greatly with recent polls.
Leonard Downie Jr.: The polls are an accurate reflection of majority opinion in the rest of the United States, which contrasts with many people's views here in Washington.
Washington, DC: I am not convinced reporters in general (including those at the Post) are in fact unbiased. Perhaps the boldest prima facie examples are in the terms used every day in stories (eg. 'Big Business,' 'Big Tobacco,' 'the religious right,' etc.). Don't you think that these sorts of terms are charged, just as the term 'Reds' was in describing Communists 30 years ago? Do they demonstrate a bias or seem to be inside-the-beltway jargon? And, assuming so, why doesn't the Post try to avoid such terms?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Ouch. these terms are Washington jargon and are overused by us in the newspaper. We must do better.
Bob Levey: I'm really not trying to be self-serving, but this is a tough time to be a newspaper reporter. You're constantly faced with PR men, people who refuse to comment, people who refuse even to meet with you. Yet the public blames us, not them, in the war about accuracy. Have we not shouted about our own reporting problems loud enough?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Alas, it is our problem to solve. We just have to work that much harder, which is okay.
Washington, DC: What advice can you give to a young journalist looking for a chance to prove herself in today's media-immersed society?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Find the right media outlet for her current level or experience and do such a good job that she gets noticed where she really wants to work. I am partial to newspapers, of course, but I want to see great journalism everywhere, including TV and the Web.
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360: It seems that everyone in the U.S. has heard about the list of dead people allegedly killed by the Clinton Administration. Why is the media so reluctant to address this topic? The evasiveness strongly suggests that there must be some truth to it, given the tendency of this administration to howl like stuck pigs over even the slightest hint of criticism.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I know you are not going to believe, but this is one of the great myths of the Internet. There is no evidence to back it up.
Bob Levey: As you indicated before, you are a true tiger about ethics--your own and the newspaper's. But our readers still see hidden agendas in what we write. How can we solve this problem (which I think is critical to the survival of the business)? If Len Downie doesn't even vote, and that isn't good enough to persuade people that we're serious about fairness, what more can we do?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We can keep telling people our strongest ethics, publish the best journalism we can and then be open to criticism and corrections of our mistakes.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I don't know if you get to read the Post, but our most important story on this subject, written by political reporter Dan Balz in last Friday's paper, made clear that the extraordinary partisanship has been on both sides. We have quoted Republicans and Democrats equally.
Bob Levey: Your right-hand man, Bob Kaiser, the former managing editor, recently returned to reporting. Will Len Downie ever do the same?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob is a great writer: I am not, I am better as an editor than as a writer.
Falls Church, VA: What has been the response to washingtonpost.com? I know that I use it almost exclusively during the day to remain updated and I'm curious to see what sort of response it has generated from the public in general.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I am proud that washingtonpost. com is one of the most popular newspaper sites on the web and that users come to it for the news coverage that we take the most pride in.
THE NEW PRESSES WITH THE NEW
Leonard Downie Jr.: we went from three pages of comics to four to deal with the smaller page size and some comics got more space as a result. We still publish way more comics than any other newspaper.
That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, executive editor Len Downie. Be sure to join us next Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. when "Levey Live" visits with The Washington Post's legendary political cartoonist, Herblock. And don't forget to be with us on Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our anything-goes show.