An Unfettered Press
Editing the Washington Post
By Marilynne Rudick
Leonard Downie's glass-walled office in the newsroom of the Washington Post provides the perfect vantage point for overseeing the newspaper's operations. During his more than 30-year career at the Post, says Downie, he has seen the journalist's job get tougher and more specialized as the news gets more complex.
But Downie, who has been fascinated with journalism since he delivered newspapers as a boy in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born in 1942, thinks the rewards are unmatched. For him, the greatest challenge is "making the Washington Post better, year after year, and continuing to make it still better the year after that."
His years at the Post -- as a reporter covering the city, doing investigative reporting, editing metropolitan and national news, overseeing day-to-day coverage as managing editor, and serving as London correspondent -- afford him a solid perspective on the role of the American press.
For the most part, American newspapers are locally, not nationally, based, notes Downie, who became executive editor of the Post in 1991. Each paper "has a certain personality that best fits its own community. If you go around from city to city, you will see quite a different newspaper."
Downie characterizes the Post's 800,000 daily and its 1.1 million Sunday readers as "the best educated, the most interested in news, in the country." And while the Post, as the premier paper in the U.S. capital, is read by public officials and executives throughout the world, he emphasizes that it is still essentially a local paper.
"The largest staff at the Post is composed of metro [local area] reporters and editors; its financial base is local advertising."
While localism is important, Downie cites the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and the independence of the press, as the cornerstone of American journalism.
"That means that government can never control or influence the press." Growing out of that, says Downie, "is a legal tradition that limits the control of private interests to whether or not they choose to buy advertising." As a result, he says, "all stories are as complete as possible, as close as possible to being the whole story. We want to be fair, accurate, and complete."
American newspapers go to great lengths to separate facts from opinion. "A reporter's opinion should not figure into the story at all," Downie explains. "What a reporter contributes to a story is expertise and analysis. Many of our reporters become experts in fields that readers need help in, whether it's government and politics, or economics, or nuclear energy.
"That's different from having the reporter's personal opinion injected into the story," says Downie. "We have a separate part of the newspaper -- the editorial page and the page opposite the editorial page -- which contains signed individual opinions." Downie does not believe that the power of the press extends to creating, rather than reporting, news -- a charge leveled by some media critics.
"What it might create," he concedes, "is priorities, because we have limited resources. And so in our picking and choosing about what we are going to find room for in a newspaper, we are creating priorities to some extent."
But far from creating news, Downie contends, "the press most often follows the public mood, rather than leading." He relates one prime example of the press lagging behind the public: the story of aerosol spray cans in the mid-1970s.
"A scientific study came out that chemicals in these cans were harming the ozone layer," he says. "And we ran some stories about it, but no one in the media crusaded about this, and there weren't editorials or a lot of front-page stories.
"Yet all around the country," he continues, "people stopped buying aerosol cans. With just the information by itself...the American people...decided that they did not want to take this risk and stopped buying the product."
Sometimes, in following the public, the press appears to be more powerful than it actually is, Downie says. "We appear to be powerful because we are surfing along on the top of this wave of public interest, and it may look like the media is leading something we are only reflecting. Or, sometimes, a story itself is so powerful that it completely captivates the American public and creates an illusion of media power."
But "our power," Downie maintains, "lies in finding out facts."
Among the facts that newspapers seek out are those about government. Some see the press as adversarial to government, but Downie sees the job of the press as making the government accountable to voters.
"This means that we should not be in cahoots with the government, but it does not mean that we have to fight with it either," he says. "You have to hold it accountable. And if all we had was good government, then we would be writing stories about good government. But if there are problems as well as successes, our duty is to report both of them."
Some have charged that the press has gone too far in ferreting out information, but Downie comments: "If you take careful surveys of this sentiment, you find that people are upset for one of two reasons: it [the press] has held up in a bad light someone or something they care about, or the investigative stories get too far into ordinary people's privacy, and readers feel personally invaded. But if you ask the same people who are offended by these stories if they want more investigative reporting, they always say they do."
Downie is aware of the responsibilities that go along with investigative reporting. "You're always balancing the public's right to know with the right of privacy," he says.
At the Post, each sensitive story is evaluated independently before a decision is made to publish. Among the considerations is whether a story is libelous -- whether it might defame.
"You have to make sure that your story is as fair and accurate as it can be, and if it's not, you have to keep working it until it is, and maybe sometimes you're never satisfied by that standard and you never publish it," Downie says.
Another consideration may be whether the story will jeopardize national security. The Post also looks at whether a story will cause personal harm. For this reason, the paper will not write about a kidnapping in progress.
Downie acknowledges that sometimes the decision to publish has serious consequences. He cites a Post story about alleged wrongdoing in a congressional office. When the story hit the front page, a congressional aide -- the focus of the story -- took his own life.
"We all felt badly about it," Downie acknowledges, "but we had no idea in advance that he was potentially suicidal. And there was no way that we could have prevented the suicide."
It is Downie's belief that some people are so public that they have virtually no rights to privacy -- such as Supreme Court justices, "among the dozen most powerful positions in this country."
Several years ago, there was a public uproar when a newspaper printed a list of videotapes that had been rented by a nominee to the Supreme Court. The Post did not publish the list.
"In this particular instance, I didn't see any relevance to that information," says Downie, but he defends the reporter's right to seek out this kind of material. It's the press's job to seek information, and the responsibility of the information holder to decide whether to divulge it, he stresses.
"In this country, if you take an oath as an employee of the federal government to protect national secrets -- and you divulge a real national secret to the media, and the media publishes it - - the person who divulged the secret is liable to punishment, not the media."
Holding the media liable, Downie says, would "chill any freedom of the press."
Given this privileged position, how good a job does the press do? Downie comments: "There are a lot of good newspapers in this country, and there are a lot of just plain mediocre newspapers, and a lot of, unfortunately, really bad newspapers, in the sense that they don't provide their readers with very much information. The press could always do better."
Becoming better, Downie says, includes making information more accessible and understandable.
"Our readers are busy people, with lots of things competing for their time." As a result, "in even the most serious stories you want to find interesting ways to tell them, so that you catch the readers' attention."
Among the competitors for the readers' attention is television. American newspapers, he says, compete with television for national stories -- the presidency, defense -- and local police and fire stories.
"But a whole lot of other things go virtually uncovered by television because they are not remotely visual. Also, television can seldom go into the kind of depth that a newspaper can. So people see something on television [that] they're really interested in, and want to read more about in tomorrow's paper.
"Some people thought that television would make newspapers obsolete, but what it did was to change the nature of newspapers. Newspapers provide the extras that television cannot provide."
Downie sees increased specialization as another change occurring in newspapers. The daily newspaper is, in reality, many specialized newspapers -- national news, local news, sports, entertainment, business, and health -- all rolled into one.
"The Post is too big for one person to read every day...instead we know that different parts of the paper are read by different people according to their special interests."
The increased specialization is changing the reporter's job. The Post has a physician covering health and a lawyer covering the Justice Department. It is no longer enough, Downie observes, for a reporter to be smart and to have a flair for writing. Increasingly, a reporter must develop a specialty.
It is all part of the job getting tougher and the news business more complex.
Marilynne Rudick is a Washington-based free-lance writer.