Exploring Accountability Journalism with Len Downie
JAMES FALLOWS, while describing the influence of the Washington Post, described the paper in a 1976 article as “the most exciting paper to work on, the most exciting to read and the one from which wrongdoers had most to fear.”
For seventeen years, Leonard Downie Jr., a Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, led the prestigious newspaper as its most successful executive editor in the history. Under Len’s leadership, the Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes — America’s most prestigious journalism award—as well as three Pulitzer Gold Medals for Public Service. During these seventeen years, Len headed the Post newsroom of 900 people with annual budget exceeding $100 million.
Journalists do not retire. They only switch roles. After a eventfully glorious stint at the Post, Len Downie announced his retirement on September 8, 2008 to become a journalism educator “to prepare tomorrow’s professional journalists at a time of extraordinary change and challenge in the news media.” Soon after being appointed as teaching faculty at the ASU, the University president Michael M. Crow, was quoted by Paul Bedard of US News saying that Downie represented “the very best of American journalism” while the Harvard-educated Dean of the Cronkite School Christopher Calllahan, termed Downie “simply the finest newspaper editor of our era.”
In an exclusive interview with The Baloch Hal, the former Washington Post executive editor spoke at length about the changing dynamics of the U.S. and global media at a time when newspapers are migrating online while the news industry has significantly shrunk only to enter the age of multi-media journalists.
From Reporter to Editor
In 1964, twenty-two- year old Len joined the Washington Post as a summer intern to cove local news. Soon, he became an investigative reporter and covered local courts and was nominated as a Pulitzer finalist in 1967.
“I was a good reporter but not the best of the writers,” he recalled when asked if a good reporter could always become a good editor, “sometimes really talented writers are only not interested in becoming editors because they may be good at editing other people’s writings but in terms of managing newsroom, coverage and managing people, they tend to be more introspective.”
At the Post, the staff members went back and forth between being reporters throughout much of their career. While a lot of reporters became editors one time and vice versa to see what career actually suited them. “In my case, it become clear over the years that my potential for growth as an editor was greater than my potential as a writer.”
Len had a few important lessons to learn from Ben Bradlee, who took the charge as the executive editor of the Post in 1965, which would help him in the future to become a prize-winning editor. The most important lesson he learned from Bradlee, which he subsequently practiced as the editor, was the induction of a culture in the Washington Post newsroom that emphasized on what he now calls “accountability journalism”.
“The Post was a younger newspaper than the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal,” he recollects, “yet the staff enjoyed a great level of freedom and less restrictions.” As a result, the Post team, he adds, was more experimental and more enterprising. As Bradlee hired “good people”, Len followed his footsteps.
“We created an atmosphere where everyone in the newsroom could do their work in the best atmosphere and emphasized accountability journalism. That atmosphere enabled our staff to produce so many Pulitzer Prizes.”
The Watergate Scandal
In 1972, when the Watergate burglaries took place,Len was on the leave of absence. When he returned to the Post, he was by pre-arrangement appointed as the Deputy Metropolitan Editor, who was, along with the city editor, responsible for the coverage of the Watergate Scandal. He was initially responsible for most of the local coverage which was preoccupied with Watergate. He was also part of the chain of command that read the Watergate stories before publication. When the Senate Watergate hearings began, Len supervised the coverage of hearings.
“We used to produce pages and pages of coverage of the Watergate hearings,” he remembers. After the City Editor’s transfer, Len directly edited Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two of the world’s best investigative reporters who broke 20 century’s biggest political scandal.
Richard Nixon, America’s 37th president, had to resign after the Post unearthed the Watergate Scandal.
Was Wikileaks a mini-Watergate?
No, Len says. Wikileaks is not the same as Watergate was because Wikileaks does not produce stories. They obtain information and pass it to news organizations which produce the stories. It is all based on documents or a dump of documents. On the other hand, he adds, the Watergate story had to evolve over a long period of time through multiple sources without solely relying on the assistance of documents.
“The reporters in Watergate Scandal knocked people’s doors, visited their homes to produce their story,” Len says, “It is different from what is going on with Wikileaks.”
The former Washington Post executive editor says he is still trying to make up his mind whether Wikileaks’s collection of documents and then passing them to different news organizations constitutes journalism or not.
“Obviously, the government has the authority to prosecute anyone who breaks the law by leaking government documents— that is not the Wikileaks, that is the member of the army who leaked these documents to Wikileaks.” Going back to the history of major leaks, Len says it is a risk that is always taken by the so-called whistle-blowers who provide information to the media. “I do not believe that a news organization, under the First Amendment, should be prosecuted for what it publishes.”
Born on May 1, 1942 in Cleveland Ohio, Len was the eldest of four sons. His father’s was a working class family. Later on, his father moved on to the middle class through a series of jobs. He grew up in a working class family. His parents’ values of honesty and straightforwardness and service to others had a deep-rooted impact on him.
“My parents were able to stretch through meager means to make life comfortable for all six of us with used houses and used cars. Those were the values that were inculcated in me,” he states nostalgically.
When at the fifth grade, Len had a teacher at elementary school who started a little student newspaper. It was published twice a semester. It was a little typed paper with old technology and he was a reporter for that paper in the fifth grade. He became an editor for the paper in the sixth grade.
“I fell in love with journalism at fifth grade,” he reveals.
He used to deliver a popular and now defunct newspaper the Cleveland Press and paid close attention to what was published in that newspaper. Once his father took him to a neighborhood meeting where the editor of the newspaper was speaking. Afterward, his father took him to meet the editor.
He worked at his junior and senior high school newspaper. With a number of scholarships, he went to Ohio State University, studied journalism and worked on the student newspaper there.
“I got an internship with the Washington Post in 1964and spent the rest of my career there.”
Under his leadership, Mr. Downie re-oriented the Washington Post newsroom as it remains today toward accountability journalism. For him, all journalism we do, whether it is political, sports or business coverage, “we make sure that we are accountable to everyone in the society for our journalism.”
He bills the concept of accountability journalism as a unique role that organized journalism has. “Accountability journalism is something difficult for an individual blogger or a citizen to do but a team of hundreds of reporters at the Washington Post can do.”
The idea of accountability journalism inspired Len from his old days of the elementary school days. He often used to write stories and editorials in the school newspaper about kids who were rude to the others at the hallway. “I am not an ideologue but a natural skeptic,” he says, “I see all sides of a story.” He refers to it what his ninety-two year old mother calls “check it out!”
“Let’s Do the Reporting”
The Washington Post Associate Editor, David Ignatius, who worked with Len since 1986, tells The Baloch Hal, he spent thousands of hours together with Len over the years, in the way we do in our business.
“Len was a great editor who kept the Post focused on its mission of covering the news aggressively and holding powerful people to account,” he said, adding that one of the phrases he associated with Len was “Let’s do the reporting” which was always his first response when they heard rumors or allegations on a topic. “What he
meant was: Let’s find out more information so that we can make good judgments about what to do with it.”
Mr. Ignatius says Len always put the interests of readers first, and he was fearless when it came to taking on powerful interests. “It’s hard to think of better things to say about an editor than those.”
According to Len, over the years, there was a pattern with all the presidents that they come into office because they had a very “tight control” over their political message. He insists it is very difficult to become the President of the United States without having a lot of control over one’s electoral message. They all start with an impressive political message but get surprised when they get elected and come to Washington by the aggressiveness of the media.
“The presidents start in Washington feeling that they can control the political message but face a different kind of a press corps in D.C. It is no longer an election campaign, it is holding the President accountable to the people who elected him,” he explains.
While the presidents come to Washington with the feeling that they have a great public mandate but get surprised why the media is becoming so aggressive. “Then, this creates tensions between the President, the White House and the Press.” The reasons for such mistrusts is the huge size of the administrations. “The presidents have to deal with the Congress, politics throughout the country. As a result, they become fractured over the time. They can’t all agree with the Administration on everything. Thus, disagreements in the Administration on various issues get leaked to the media. You go through this period of tight control over the message and a friction between the White House and the media, as is happening now between the Obama Administration and the media on several respects.”
Len believes the Regan Administration was “the best in manipulating the media message” for a long period and maintaining that control over a longer period than any other administration. “But inevitably, all the governments go through the same stages.”
Mr. Downie admits that online journalism has already affected the newspapers in the United States. Now, he says, the audience is a participant in the coverage by commenting, pointing out the mistakes the media commits and bringing story tips through social media. It is also a reporting device and a source to reach people which was not available in the past. It is a tool to crowd-source to go to a community to ask who knows about one particular subject for coverage. “Social media is changing coverage dramatically,” he acknowledges.
Blogs v/s Newspapers
With the influx of bloggers, what is the future of newspapers and professional journalists jeopardized. Len’s is a response in negation. He says the First Amendment is unique to the United States of America. “No country in the world has a First Amendment which makes it difficult for the rest to understand the kind of freedoms protected in the United States. There was recently this Supreme Court case which got an 8/1 decision which even gave the people the right to say the most awful things in the funerals of the U. S military personnel killed overseas. As awful as it seems, they have their right.”
Thus, the First Amendment provides the bloggers the same level of protection if they produce journalism. It is up to everyone, whether an individual person or a news organization, that has to decide what their credibility is going to be. “If you want to be credible against someone opinionated or somebody who throws rumors all around then you have to police yourself to make sure that you are credible.
“Under the First Amendment, nobody should be or can be policing us.”
Mr. Downie says he has never been satisfied with the American media’s coverage of anything because he is always seeking out to do better. According to him, American coverage of foreign affairs became much greater both in terms of quality and quantity after 9/1 1 because people were reminded that Americans also existed in a global world.
In Len’s opinion the coverage of foreign issues in the U.S media is determined by two factors. First, the attention span of Americans which he says is “notoriously short” and floats from subject to subject. Secondly, the cost of coverage which was relatively inexpensive in the past. Many countries of the world are far cheaper than the United States to travel to. It’s almost reverse now. Today, it is cheaper to live and travel in the US than rest of the world. Because of changing economic dynamics, there are very few full-time correspondents of the US media overseas.
“There is a lot more reliance on local stringers, which was the trend in the middle of the 20th century when I started my career,” he observed and also pointed out that the coverage of international issues varied from organization to organization. For example, National Public Radio (NPR) now has much more coverage of international issues than ever before whereas many American newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, which had foreign correspondents in the past, have none now.
Isalm & Stereotypes
Len says today there is less stereotyping of the Islamic world in the US media than it initially was soon after 9/11. He agrees that the Islamic world was neglected in the coverage. Former managing editor Philip Bennett, who was particularly interested in the coverage of that part of the world, was concerned about the lack of coverage of the Islamic world.
“After 9/11, there was a realization that this (Islamic) world existed and there was radicalism that produced those terrorist attacks. The first phase of extensive coverage of the Islamic world was terrorism and radicalism and less about the Islamic world generally. Since then, the Americans have seen the expansion and better understanding of Islam and the Muslims.”
Media& US Foreign Policy
Len says newspapers in the US influence the US foreign policy in two ways. One is simply to bring facts to light. For example, when Dana Priest reported in the Post about secrete CIA prisions in other countries for the detention and interrogation of terror suspects, they were closed as a result of that coverage. The other way is the government officials leak information to the media when they disagree with government policies but do not have the courage to directly walk to the president and tell him about the wrong policies. That is how the issue catches the president’s attention through the news media.
The Rules of the Game
Over the years, Len has written a couple of books mainly about the U.S media which include Justice Denied (1971), Mortgage on America (1974), The New Muckrakers (1976), and The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, (2002).
In 2009, he published his first fiction book The Rules of the Game. The idea of the the fiction developed after his conversations with different people who wanted to learn more about Washington and journalism.
“When I talk to people, I realized they are interested in knowing about my journalistic life and stories. So, I thought of writing my first fiction,” says Len, who has already started writing his second fiction book.
Back to Journalism
After his retirement from the Post, Len is presently engaged in educating future journalists at Arizona State University. Students simply love him. For many of them it was like a dream when Len moderated a discussion with Bob Woodward. “For a moment, I was like wow! We are being educated by two of the greatest journalists of all times,” said Whitney Phillips, a student at the Cronkite School.
Another student, Brandon Quester, is enrolled in Len’s News21 Seminar class. The class is part of a Carnegie-Knight initiative with the top journalism schools throughout the United States, focusing on investigative journalism.
He says he took the class not only because News21 program was a great experience, but also “because it offered an opportunity to work with one of journalism’s greatest editors of all time.”
Brandon says Len provides a wealth of institutional knowledge and experience – which he also brings to his role as a professor. “He has been a part of some of the most influential journalism conducted in this country, and to hear his experiences first-hand adds a level of education that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s truly a great opportunity,” he concludes.
Malik Siraj Akbar, editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal, is a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University