Story location: http://archive.pressthink.org/2003/11/11/downie_dodge.html
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 says: “But it is not our role to tell the politicians what it is they’re supposed to discuss during a campaign.” Miller asks him: why not? “Because it’s not our role.” (Clever, huh?) Journalists just provide information— a key word, in fact a holy word for Downie.
- Miller: But how do you decide which issues get front page treatment? (Here he is politely saying to Downie that “we provide information” is a pathetic dodge because it says nothing about how decisions are made in the many situations where journalists have wide discretion.) Downie’s answer about how issues make it to the front page: “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”
- Miller: “If reluctant or accidental agenda setters are destined to be agenda setters nonetheless, what is the framework through which you think about how to exercise that power responsibly. Is that a fair question?’” Here Miller had something subtle in mind. If an editor like Downie knows that what he treats in a sustained fashion is going to influence the public agenda, (even if that is not the intention) then a thoughtful and ethical person would at least think about the proper use of that power. But what framework might be right for this act of thinking? Amazingly, Downie agrees: it’s a fair question you ask, Matt. He then proceeds to dodge it. “What I don’t want to do is what Louis Seltzer at the Cleveland Press did,” Downie says. It seems that when he was growing up in Cleveland, Seltzer, the editor, decided that a man was guilty of killing his wife and used his newspaper to convince the entire community. Of course, the Cleveland Press example is advocacy pure and simple, crusading on the front page for a conviction. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand, and not even close to what Miller asked about. If a cabinet secretary gave that kind of answer at a press conference and the Post reporter didn’t challenge it, Downie might say: what is wrong with you?
- “We should not be thinking in terms of setting a public-policy agenda, we should be thinking in terms of setting an informational agenda,” Downie says. He seems to believe that this term, “information agenda,” illuminates decision-making at the Post. But I think the reason it appeals to him is that it reveals nothing— zippo. Hey, editors, why is this information deemed important by your newspaper, when other information is left out? “We think it’s important informationally, that’s why.” Oh… Well, could I have a follow up, then?
- Miller follows up: “”But the size of the box of things that are ‘informationally important’ is quite large… You—like anybody who has to budget resources and time and talent and energy and space—have to decide what subset of that box you’re going to pursue. How do you decide?” In reply to this—the fourth time the same question was asked—Downie actually denies that he sets any news agenda for the Post. “It’s an organic process of responding to the information we’re finding, and responding to events in society.”
- Miller gives it one more try. “Should the news side of an organization like yours have a perspective on what are the most important challenges facing the country?” Downie says: no way. By now you know his reason: “We should have a perspective on what the important informational needs of the country are, and fill those needs.” But how is that any different? Miller asks. “It’s different because ‘challenges’ is subjective,” says Downie. (Whereas determining the most important informational needs of Americans is like consulting census data, or a chart showing the ocean tides. Right?)
- There are roughly 44 million Americans without health insurance. Miller wanted to know if newspapers like the Post might contribute something to public understanding with a feature called, “Still True Today.” It would be a small front-page reminder of key facts that don’t necessarily make the news, even though they remain important. Doable, Len? Nope. That would be editorializing—choosing which facts to highlight—and, sorry, we just don’t do that.
- Downie says that the Post has probably printed the 44 million figure fifty times in the last year. So Miller goes back and checks, giving Downie not twelve months but twenty. Turns out the 44 million appeared ten times in the Post during that period, and never on the front page. Meanwhile, “the Chandra Levy story was discussed in 199 pieces in the Post, including fourteen front-page pieces.” I guess Chandra’s fate was important— informationally speaking.
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