In his extraordinary 44-year career as a reporter and top editor at the Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr. was deeply engaged in making critical decisions about what was considered newsworthy. He writes about the key roles he played in the superb All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and the Washington Post.
Downie writes, “Newsrooms are not democracies. Someone must make final decisions about what goes into the newspaper, on the air, or online.” He delegated some decisions, but he was a hands-on managing editor and executive editor, personally dealing with what went on the front page, the accuracy and fairness of potentially controversial stories and concerns about libel or language and photographs that might offend readers.
Downie contributed to the coverage of dozens of historical events, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the Unabomber’s threat and the decision to publish his manifesto; the Iraq War and related national security issues, such as the decision to reveal the secret “black sites” where prisoners were sent for interrogation; and the impeachment of President Clinton. He was the deputy metro editor in June 1972 when the Watergate scandal broke, and he recalls his relationship with “what became the most famous reporting partnership in American journalism,” Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. They were an “odd couple” but perfectly complemented each other. When they wrote competing versions of a story, Downie would sometimes rewrite the opening paragraph after determining which direction the piece should go.
When it came to revealing the private lives of public figures, Downie concedes that he made mistakes in this area, and that his newsroom staff and readers strongly disagreed with him about, for example, reporting on the personal lives of the Clintons. He says he was wrong, too, not to have run more stories on the front page about the Bush administration’s rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraq War. He insisted on complete nonpartisanship in his paper’s news coverage, and he even stopped voting when he became managing editor in 1984.
Downie shows the vital role a free press plays in our democracy. His splendid recounting should be of interest to everyone.