A dozen years after stepping down as the Washington Post’s top editor, Leonard Downie reaches into history when asked about the war between Donald Trump and the media.
“Bill Clinton still had the support of a majority of the country, and people accused us of being too opposed to him,” he says in an interview.
Downie, who ran the Post as the number one or two editor for a quarter century, recalls a confrontational White House meeting with Hillary Clinton about what she and her husband saw as unfair coverage.
And Downie hears echoes of Watergate, when he was a local editor working with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Richard Nixon despised the newspaper.
But in a conversation about his new book–“All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and the Washington Post”–Downie is reluctant to fault the press in the Trump era. And part of the reason is that the news business has changed so drastically from when he resigned–was forced out, actually–back in 2008.
“It’s hard for me to pass a strong judgment on that,” he says in a measured cadence so familiar to me because he was my boss for years, when I had to press him–and we sometimes clashed–on many of these stories.
What about the overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump?
“We’re in a new time where it’s expected that there’s more ‘voice,’ particularly on the Internet,” Downie tells me. “It’s lucrative for outstanding news reporters to appear on TV. Even if they’re not stating opinions themselves, they’re in those boxes on panels with people that are stating opinions. That does bother me a great deal, but it’s a fact of life these days.” He cited the example of Bernstein, now a CNN contributor who regularly denounces Trump as more corrupt than Nixon.
What’s more, Downie is no fan of Twitter. “I don’t like that people who are fact-finding newspaper reporters are expressing opinions in any venue, including on Twitter,” he says. But “I know the temptations are great in social media,” especially for younger journalists who might support Black Lives Matter “and decide to crusade about it.”
I tried again: Aren’t the national media losing credibility? Or does he believe there’s a national appetite for the constant Trump-bashing?
“If you’re watching CNN you’d feel that way. If you’re watching Fox, you wouldn’t feel that way.”
He also says Trump exacerbates the polarization with his “absolutely unprecedented” attacks on the press. “All presidents have not always told the truth. Empirically, it appears to me there’s much more falsity from this president and the administration.”
During the Hillary Clinton meeting, she complained the paper was unfairly hounding the White House with requests for documents on Whitewater; Downie said she could put the story to rest by giving the Post the records. “I did have concerns about her veracity,” he tells me.
Without being asked, the first lady brought up rumors and press reports about her husband and other women, including Gennifer Flowers. She asked him for advice on managing the press, but he declined. Downie also spoke to Bill Clinton, who schmoozed him but wouldn’t engage on the coverage or the documents.
After the Post broke the story of Ken Starr’s probe of the Monica Lewinsky mess–once Newsweek delayed its own piece, as the Drudge Report revealed–Downie approved a story on Clinton’s deposition, denying sexual relations with Lewinsky. The White House ripped the “illegal disclosure” of the deposition, and Downie defended the use of anonymous sources.
“If I, as executive editor of the Washington Post, had sexual relations with an intern in the Post newsroom, I would have been fired,” he says. But Ben Bradlee’s successor stresses that he had no view on whether Clinton should have been impeached or convicted.
To hear Downie, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School, reflect on some of his most difficult decisions is to be reminded of an era when newspapers wielded greater clout and stories unfolded at a far slower pace.
In the final weeks of the 1992 campaign, Downie declined to publish a story detailing sexual harassment by then-senator Bob Packwood, feeling it needed more substantiation. The Post drew criticism for running the piece three weeks after Packwood was safely reelected in Oregon. It was not until nearly three years later that Packwood resigned in the face of certain expulsion by the Senate.
During the 1996 presidential campaign, Woodward and a colleague interviewed a Washington woman who confirmed she’d had an affair with Bob Dole during the late 1960s, before he divorced his first wife. Given the coverage of Clinton’s womanizing, Downie got a memo from top staffers: “Eighteen of my very best colleagues all wanted the story published, and I decided not to,” reasoning that the long-ago relationship was not relevant. “Editors were among the last legal dictators in the United States.”
Much of Washington knew the Post was pursuing the Dole story, which was broken a week later by the National Enquirer, forcing the Post to disclose its own reporting. Could the story have held that long in today’s frenzied environment?
“If tipsters were determined to get it out, they would leak it online and that would change the way we pursue it,” Downie says.
In a very different context, the Post got scooped on one of its own secrets–the 33-year shielding of Woodward’s Watergate source Deep Throat. The ailing ex-FBI official Mark Felt, or his family, had given the story to Vanity Fair.
“Woodward argued with me for a while that Deep Throat himself had not changed the confidentiality agreement because he was unable to, having dementia. Bob argued we still shouldn’t identify him, but it was all over the Internet,” Downie recalls. Still, the former editor lost no sleep about losing the exclusive because “it shows how determined we were to protect confidential sources for as long as we could.”
Downie’s biggest regret is how the paper handled the Bush administration’s runup to the Iraq war, which I had sharply criticized in the aftermath.
“It was my biggest failure, period. I’d made other mistakes–news judgments, personnel–but nothing of that magnitude,” he says. “We did publish questions about the administration’s rationale for war, but they were not played as prominently. I was so preoccupied getting us ready to cover a war, and making clear to readers just how determined the administration was to go to war, that I didn’t go across the room to the national staff and see if there was more to be done. I certainly didn’t push it.”
Downie’s departure, five years before the Post was sold to Jeff Bezos, was not a happy one. He was stunned to learn that Publisher Don Graham was handing the reins to his niece, Katharine Weymouth, and that she wanted him to retire, and quickly.
When Downie met with Graham, he writes, and they spoke of how hard the transition from power would be for both of them, “we began to cry unashamedly.”
The tenure of the man who began at the Post as an intern was over.