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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 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