November 11, 2003
We Just Don't Think About It: The Strange Press Mind of Leonard Downie
Columnist Matthew Miller tried to ask Len Downie about the latent politics of news judgment. But the editor of the Washington Post won't go there: "We are not allowing ourselves to think politically."
The current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review offers a treat for fans of the minimalist style in press thought. That great know-nothing Leonard Downie, Jr., editor of the Washington Post, is questioned on a subject he is proud and determined to know nothing at all about— the politics of news judgment. Or, as Matthew Miller puts it, “the press’s exercise of discretionary agenda-setting power via original reporting.”
What he means by this phrase is not hard to grasp. Indeed, for most of us it is rather like common sense. The press, Miller is saying, has a lot of discretion in what it chooses to highlight and report. The choices journalists make have consequences in the real world—including the world of politics—because what is prominent in the news naturally becomes material for public discussion. This in turn is likely to weigh on the minds of politicians and other influential people who pay especially close attention to the news. So there’s a kind of politics in news judgment, but anyone who knows journalism knows it is not as simple as consulting an ideological agenda.
Miller writes a syndicated column about pubic policy with a “raging moderate” outlook, hosts a radio show in Los Angeles, and used to work in the Clinton White House. He wanted to know what Leonard Downie thought about the latent politics inherent in daily journalism.
I believe that the stenographic norms of journalism mean that influential news outlets largely cede an agenda-setting role to public officials, a practice that leaves debate impoverished at times when neither political party finds it convenient to address major problems. Is there a way to change this dynamic? And can such efforts be squared with traditional values that govern the responsible exercise of the press’s power?
So here’s some of what happened:
Downie is a well liked man, highly respected at the Washington Post. He believes fiercely in protecting serious journalism from assault, and wrote a pretty good book (with Robert Kaiser) about it. I don’t know if reporters and editors at the Post are embarrassed by his know-nothing, say-nothing, stonewalling intellectual style when discussing the nature of news judgment. But I do know that others have noticed it. Here’s Jack Shafer of Slate complaining about a question-and-answer session between Downie and Post readers:
If Leonard Downie Jr. loses his day job as executive editor of the Washington Post, he should send his résumé to the Pentagon and demand work as a press briefer. He’s better than top flack Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem at returning softball answers to hardball questions, if the 5,000-word online chat he conducted yesterday on washingtonpost.com is any indication. Downie… prefers to serve giant bowls of mush to the sharpest queries, killing questioners’ appetite to ask more. He politely deflects criticisms of the Post, gives boilerplate responses to complicated questions, or claims that the Post just happens to be doing a great job covering whatever the questioner complained about.
Back of all the Downie doubletalk about “information agendas” and “organic” news decisions is a matter more serious: Leonard Downie’s quest for absolute innocence when it comes to having a political thought or two about journalism. He achieves this innocence by receiving all questions about the inherently political nature of the press as crude demands to politicize the press. (For more on this distinction, click here.) When he does this, he treats his questioners as stupid, or unworthy of respect. But innocence at such an extreme is really a kind of power; and this, I think, is what Downie is saying to us with his bowls of mush: I have the power to say nothing of consequence about decisions of consequence. And the truth is… he does.
Matthew Miller’s book, The Two Percent Solution, is explained here.
Posted by Jay Rosen at November 11, 2003 12:58 AM Print
Actually, Downie is right, Matthew Miller and you amazingly wrong.
And here's why: the hope that Downie, or Howell Raines, or Miller, or you, will manufacture an information product that will pass whatever "agenda-setting" muster you or I or anybody else has in mind for it--that will be necessary and sufficient unto the task of "setting the agenda"--is utopian, sophomoric, and self-absorbed. Because, of course, Downie and the Post already set the agenda they wish to set while denying doing so. As did Raines, as does Miller, as does every "news source" out there.
Is 40,000,000 uninsured something that ought to be on the front pages 50 times? Or 10 times? Is it even true? If it is, of the 40,000,000, how many suffer for it each year? Clearly, for Miller, it is not important because it is important; it is important because political behavior should change because there are 40,000,000 uninsured.
This is exactly the problem with the "news."
Posted by: John Mendenhall at November 11, 2003 12:01 PM | Permalink
I thought the Downie/Kaiser book was terrible. http://www.reason.com/0212/cr.mw.woe.shtml
Posted by: Matt Welch at November 11, 2003 1:08 PM | Permalink
I can't follow John Mendenhall's point. Here's what I think Jay Rosen and Matthew Miller are trying to say: the press, by its very nature, makes choices about what to report and how to report it. The circular answers that Len Downie gives are disingenuous and condescending as he tries (unsuccessfully) to claim that the Post doesn't make any choices about what to report. Any media organization does what Downie tries to claim the Post doesn't do, and it is fair and correct to call him on that.
Posted by: Matthew Morse at November 11, 2003 1:38 PM | Permalink
From a newbie-renegade-ex-daily-journlist:
Very valuable distinctions the author makes re news judgements, etc. Thirty-five years ago, I was taught that objectivity was the reporter's credo. Then, twenty years ago, I had a lame-brain supervisor who told me my job was to "set the agenda" for the Los Angeles community.
Then I quit daily journalism and got an honest job writing fiction.
But trying to get old-school guys like Downie to admit they are a part of the overall political process is not going to work. They can't do it. To do so would be to junk so many of their core values.
But niether can they admit they are mere tools of other political forces, even if they understand that they are tools of political forces every time they accept a leaked story from a source with an agenda.
The truth is that they respond to "information" in an instinctive, non-introspective way. They are, at their best and worst, hip-shooters who don't reflect much on why they react. Gem-stone prospectors know the glint of rough jewel material in the gravel, even if they aren't trained geologists or gemologists. That's how journalists like Downie operate. That's also why they can sometimes wrap themselves around left-wing ideas and at other times embrace "information" that supports mildly or radically right-wing ideology.
Post-modernism likes to pick ideas and positions apart. Nothing wrong with that. But post-modernists have to adapt to the truth, which is that most human beings are not post-modernist, any more than they were "modernists" fifty years ago.
Posted by: evan maxwell at November 11, 2003 2:43 PM | Permalink
I've always believed there is a "reporter's way" of looking at an issue that has nothing to do with one's ideology or personal biases. A liberal or a conservative reporter (a rare breed) would come to the same "news judgment" by looking at issues in a "reporter's way," almost as a separate person outside of themselves. Call me naive, but that's the way I always tried to do this job. But somewhere along the way, maybe about the time the above poster was told he should "set the agenda," that all changed. Once that idea was scrapped, with the overwhelming ideological homogeneity in newsrooms, it all turned soft and brown. That "reporter's way" of looking at things used to be called something else: professionalism. Too bad we don't have much of that anymore.
Posted by: rivlax at November 11, 2003 3:01 PM | Permalink
The famous sociologist Herbert J. Gans explored the topic of journalistic agenda-setting (though I don't believe he used that phrase) at considerable length in his book "Deciding What's News." I was under the impression that this book was well-known among journalists, although it seems to have escaped Downie's attention. The book is an attempt to understand the professional journalist's mindset, particularly how unconscious values and ideologies necessarily shape the decision-making process, with respect to the stories that are printed (or not). Written more than 20 years ago, it is somewhat dated but still worth reading.
Posted by: Jack McCain at November 11, 2003 3:50 PM | Permalink
The Gans book is a very apt reference, Jack. It is one of the key titles in a very strong literature on the sociology of newswork. (Gans is a sociologist.) This literature has been building since the 1970s and it is mostly an attempt to explain decision-making in newsrooms, without relying on either circular reasoning (we judge what is newsworthy by using our news judgment) or crude ideological schemes to account for newsroom behavior. Any journalist who wanted to consult what others know about his or her profession--from studying that profession!--could profit from this literature.
Two of its key insights are 1.) that production demands are responsible for many decisions that are explained in other ways by journalists, which is rather obvious, and 2.) that much of what journalists do--and say and think about their work--is a ritual to deflect anticipated criticism. Why? Because they are exposed so often to possisble attack by the very nature of producing a daily news report, gathered and written in a hurry.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 12, 2003 12:25 AM | Permalink
Jay's dead-on about what really causes journalism to go awry: it's 95 percent lack of time, space, money and talent to do a better job. I won't insult anybody's intelligence and say political bias isn't a factor in news coverage ... it's just not nearly as big a factor as the ideologues paint it to be.
A bit of context for the Downie debate: Washington is a company town, and for him to admit even the slightest instance of taking political sides could compromise the Post's access to Beltway insiders. What seems actively delusional to outsiders could be a just another survival skill to an insider.
The Post being an insider opens another can of worms, of course, if you think newspapers are in the public service business.
Posted by: tom mangan at November 12, 2003 1:35 AM | Permalink
Great "Portrait Of An Editor Hunkered In A Bunker"
It's regrettable he obviously feels he has to stonewall - it's reminiscent of the scenes in a criminal trial where the accused pleads the fifth amendment to every question :-(
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 12, 2003 1:41 AM | Permalink
Tom: I think you are right that the risks of appearing "political" at all are a factor in Downie's "nothing but information here" attitude. It makes sense for the Editor of the Post to be cautious in what he says, given the paper's position in the capital and how open it is to criticism.
I found something similar when I went to NPR in Washington to talk about public journalism, which is perceived by some to be more "political" in its aims. It was one of the roughest receptions I got anywhere in the press, with open jeering and snarling. Linda Werthheimer was particularly vocal, I recall. Part of the reason is that NPR (like PBS) is hyper-sensitive to any criticism of having an "agenda." As is the Post, of course.
But think: does that make these organizations more or less political? Does it make the job of Leonard Downie or Kevin Klose (NPR head) more or less of a "political" position? Viewing it that way, Downie's refusal to engage at all on decision-making, agenda-setting and priorities in journalism looks more... interesting. Might we want to say that there is risk in that refusal? Seems to me we might.
Posted by: Jay Rosen at November 12, 2003 5:50 PM | Permalink
It appears to me that, if you use some material and not other from a total that is too large to use all of, then one must either have a choice mechanism by which some is used and some is not, OR what is used is picked randomly. Which is it in the case of the Post, Mr. Downie? Or does the post have a choice mechanism but no one understands it and/or cannot articulate it? Actually, I rather like the idea the the Post is choosing it's stories randomly. It would explain a lot.
Posted by: JorgXMcKie at November 12, 2003 11:44 PM | Permalink
Jorge: After years in Washington, he has the script down pat.
"Nobody here but us completely valueless totally nonjudgmental reporters without objective, who make sure to stay strictly in the middle between truth and lies"
(all puns intended)
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at November 12, 2003 11:57 PM | Permalink
Taking a mushy stance is still a decision.
This leaves me gritting my teeth at on-line sources. If we can't find real news in one place, we'll go elsewhere.
Whatever the mushy collective reportorial unconscious wants, it isn't giving the reader anything that *I* want: plainly-stated viewpoints, attributed sources, clear statistical information, and if you're doing a *great* job, snappy quotes.
Posted by: Heather at November 13, 2003 12:37 AM | Permalink
re Jay and the argument that the WaPo needs to claim neutrality: