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Inside the Washington Post newsroom: History-making moments and good gossip

Senior Washington Post editors, led by then-Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., right foreground with his back to the camera, discuss Page One story possibilities during the daily 2 p.m. meeting in 1998. (Mark Finkenstaedt/For The Washington Post)

Every story, no matter how big, is about the people in it. Leonard Downie Jr. has always known this, and he has the tales to prove it.

Downie’s memoir could be characterized as a series of war stories best enjoyed by journalists, past and present. This would be a disservice to history lovers who will relish his behind-the-scenes narratives of some of the world’s biggest stories during his 44 years at The Washington Post, including 17 years as executive editor until his forced retirement in 2008.

All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and The Washington Post” is written with history in mind, and Downie’s role in bringing it to life for readers. From his account of Watergate and his riveting timeline of the Jonestown massacre to his confrontations with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Downie’s book is a celebration of what strong journalism can accomplish. It is also a cautionary tale about what’s at stake if our financially imperiled profession does not find new ways to remain viable. Plus, it’s full of great gossip.

Downie was born in 1942 on the west side of Cleveland into a working-class family. The oldest of four sons, he was a bright child and, by his own description, “something of a loner.” It didn’t help that he was physically awkward, having reached his full height of nearly six feet by age 12. He was “too gawky to attract girls, and too square to be socially popular.”

His early love for journalism saved him, and his work at student newspapers set the trajectory for his long and storied career at The Post.

Like so many working-class parents, Downie’s wanted him to go to college, even though they couldn’t afford it. Their dream became his. Good grades and test scores earned him acceptances to several schools, including Princeton and Ohio State. Rice University offered him a full scholarship, but for a mathematics major. He held out for a local journalism scholarship that made it possible for him to enroll at Ohio State.

Life intervened. The summer after high school graduation, in 1960, his girlfriend, Barbara “Bonnie” Lindsey, became pregnant. They married and, with financial help from her parents, moved into university housing for married students in Columbus, Ohio, so Downie could attend college.

In June 1964, he became an “accidental intern” at The Post after he showed up under the mistaken impression that he had the job. Despite the mix-up, which was not entirely his fault, Downie was taken on along with the other interns. He was an unusual hire for The Post at the time. And before long, he had a nickname.

The Post’s city editor, Steve Isaacs, had plucked a handful of male reporters, known as Isaacs’s Boys, for special mentoring. Downie made the cut as the only graduate of a state university. One of the chosen few, “plummy-voiced Harvard graduate” Dan Morgan, christened Downie “Land Grant Len.”

He writes about the rivalries within the newsroom, which are common at larger papers, and is critical of the political beat system. Nowhere is this more evident than in his account of the Watergate coverage that ended in Richard Nixon’s resignation. “Too many national news reporters gave too much deference to what they were told by their sources in government and politics, whom they talked to every day and came to know well,” Downie writes. “They regarded the ‘dirty tricks’ they came across in political campaigns as relatively insignificant and outside the lines of the game they covered, as though it were a sport, like baseball. For too many long months, Watergate appeared to many of them to be well outside the lines.”

Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and other Post staffers working on Watergate “were not constrained by that culture. Even as the story’s national implications steadily grew, we worked to keep it with Metro, away from skeptics on the Post’s own national news staff. This would eventually grow into a tense rivalry between the underdog Metro staff and a seemingly entitled national staff in [executive editor Ben Bradlee’s] highly competitive newsroom.”

It was a lonely time for Downie and his Watergate teammates. “It is hard to describe how isolated those of us working on Watergate felt at the time,” he writes. “We were a relatively small number of young Metro reporters and editors without experience in federal investigations, national politics, or the workings of the White House. Our work was still being questioned by others in our own newsroom and largely ignored by much of the rest of the news media. People were telling [publisher] Katharine Graham that we would ruin her newspaper, which was under constant attack from the White House and Republican Party leaders.”

I highlight this passage because its lesson remains a vital one for younger journalists. Hard-working novices are often unpopular with large swaths of colleagues. This is unfortunate and sometimes wearying, but it should never be a deterrent in pursuit of a story or a career.

For all his seriousness, Downie slips in many gossipy asides. Isaacs liked to entertain him with “juicy newsroom gossip, in a tone laced with self-importance and impatient ambition.” Graham was “disappointed” to be written out of the film “All the President’s Men.” Barry Sussman, “who had practically been the third coauthor” of many of the Watergate stories, “resented” that he was cut out of Woodward and Bernstein’s book deal.

Legendary editor Bradlee could be petty and vengeful. When Isaacs, furious that Bradlee had summarily rejected his reorganization plan for the newsroom, “forcefully blocked” Bradlee to the ground during a touch football game, Bradlee “exiled” him to The Post’s Sunday magazine.

Woodward was a talented reporter, but his writing was “wooden,” requiring “extensive editing and often rewriting by editors, including me, throughout his years at the Post.” Bernstein could be “brash and arrogant” and “strikingly selfish and irresponsible in his work habits, his handling of money, and his relationships with women.” But, Downie writes, he “exuded a boyish charm that could ingratiate him to anyone.”

Downie admits to stumbles and mistakes, and moments of vulnerability. When his first wife (he’s been married three times) left him for a Post colleague and moved away with their two sons, he briefly saw a psychiatrist “to deal with my resulting anxiety.” After he was told he would have to retire as The Post navigated massive challenges in the new media landscape, he met with then-owner Don Graham that evening. After Graham assured him that 2008 would be a difficult year for both of them, “we began to cry unashamedly.”

He describes how his initial shock at seeing so many African Americans, including in his newsroom, cheer O.J. Simpson’s not-guilty verdict forced him to acknowledge The Post’s failure to hire and promote Black journalists, as well as women. Before his retirement, he writes, “women and journalists of color became a majority of the top 40 editors in the newsroom.”

In his afterword, Downie addresses President Trump’s attempts to undermine journalism, and he hints at hope. “Trump’s behavior reminded me of Richard Nixon’s attacks on the Washington Post during Watergate, his illegal wiretaps and FBI investigations of reporters, and his ‘enemies list’ that included newspaper and television journalists. White House tape recordings eventually revealed that Nixon also raged against the press in Oval Office conversations with his aides. We at the Post and the rest of the press outlasted Nixon. Americans, who had been divided over his presidency, came to support a profound increase in the kind of investigative reporting that brought him down.”

Trump is different, Downie concedes. No previous president “purposely sought to fundamentally destroy the credibility of the press or lied to the American people in the ways that Trump has.”

Nevertheless, Downie seems optimistic as he quotes political reporter Dan Balz: “One of the effects of the way Trump has attacked the press is to remind people about the importance of freedom of the press and our role in holding government accountable.”

Will that matter?

We’ll learn soon enough.

All About the Story

News, Power, Politics, and The Washington Post

By Leonard Downie Jr.

PublicAffairs. 385 pp. $30