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By Franco LaTona
The origins of Leonard Downie Jr.’s storied journalism career began all the way back in the fifth grade at Landon Elementary in Cleveland, Ohio. There he wrote his first story for the school paper about what it was like for students to switch rooms each semester. By grade six he was the paper’s editor-in-chief.
His childhood passion turned into an impeccable 44-year career at The Washington Post, and it’s all captured in Downie’s new book “All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and The Washington Post,” to be released today. In it he recalls his journey at the newspaper he helped elevate to international prominence.
Starting as an intern in 1964 at age 22, Downie quickly became an award-winning investigative reporter. He worked as an editor during Watergate, then took over as The Post’s managing editor in 1984 before moving up to executive editor, the highest position in the newsroom. Downie oversaw the paper’s coverage of every presidential election from 1984 to 2008. Under his leadership, The Washington Post won 25 Pulitzer Prizes, more than any other newspaper under a single executive editor.
The lessons of ethical reporting didn’t come easy, and Downie highlights many of them in his book. At Ohio State University, Downie served as the school paper’s editorial editor. On one occasion, he recalls, he got a tip and jumped at the chance to report that the university president had cancelled a controversial speaking appearance by Phillip Abbott Luce, who was set to disparage a federal committee tasked with investigating communist activity in the U.S.
He said only later did he recognize his mistake: the newsroom should always remain separate from the editorial department, something he firmly adhered to while leading The Post. Downie said while strict separation is still present in some newsrooms, it’s less prevalent today.
“It’s made it more difficult for the American public to see the difference between the opinion writing and the news writing,” Downie said. “I’m old fashioned and I still think it remains important.”
Objectivity in reporting, or nonpartisanship as Downie prefers, is of paramount importance in newsrooms. In his book, Downie writes that when he took the job as The Washington Post’s managing editor in 1984, he quit voting altogether, though he never required his reporters to follow suit.
“I thought I had an even higher responsibility to remain nonpartisan,” Downie said.
He did, however, forbid his reporters’ involvement in partisan activities. He writes that once in 1989 some of The Post’s journalists defied the policy and participated in a “huge march for abortion rights” in Washington, D.C. Though he didn’t discipline them, Downie writes that he reminded the news staff of their duty to remain nonpartisan. It was the last time the policy was knowingly violated, he said.
He said actively participating in demonstrations or editorializing about those involved can violate journalistic integrity.
“If you're reporting on demonstrations and also expressing opinions about demonstrations, that makes your reporting suspect,” he said.
When asked about the similarities between that moment and the current Black Lives Matter protests, Downie said the key is knowing where to draw the line. For instance, he takes no issue with reporters posting “Black Lives Matter” to their social media accounts.
“That’s a fact, and saying you believe in that is like saying you believe in good journalism,” Downie said.
Under Downie’s leadership, the proportion of reporters of color increased from 12 to 25 percent and the proportion of women from 34 to 45 percent. Downie said he regularly included diversity issues in staff meetings and created a task force charged with recruiting and advancing journalists of color. Downie said the “intellectual atmosphere” in newsrooms should be as diverse as the population it covers.
During his tenure as managing and then executive editor, Downie never shied away from reporting on the private lives of public officials. He notes in his book that reporters turned a blind eye to the “compulsive sexual escapades” of presidents for more than the first half of the 20th century.
Starting with Gary Hart, a democratic presidential nominee in the late 1980s, Downie and Ben Bradlee, the Post’s executive editor at the time, decided that the private lives of politicians were newsworthy. They assigned a reporter to conduct an “in-depth character profile” concerning Hart’s extramarital affairs along with “questions about his honesty.”
“The rules had changed,” Downie writes about the Hart investigation. “Adultery would never again be off limits in the decisions about how to report on politicians.”
This reporting strategy led to stories about the private lives of George H.W. Bush, Washington D.C.’s Mayor Marion Barry, and perhaps most famously culminated in The Post’s coverage of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, which ultimately led to his impeachment. The critics (mostly men, as Downie pointed out) were unhappy with this new style of reporting.
“They concluded that the news media, led by The Washington Post, had gone way too far,” Downie writes.
But Downie never wavered, and the recent #MeToo movement ignited new energy into a movement to hold powerful men accountable for sexual assault or inappropriate sexual behavior towards women.
“The #MeToo movement makes clear that what I did and The Washington Post did and other parts of the media did through the Lewinsky case was absolutely the right thing to do,” Downie said.
“All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and The Washington Post” is available at bookstores and online retailers. To order, click here.