Former 'Post' Editor Details The 'Rules Of The Game' After 44 years as a newspaper man, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. makes his debut as a fiction writer. His new novel, Rules Of The Game, features an investigative reporter on the beat of a hotly contested presidential election.
NPR logo

Former 'Post' Editor Details The 'Rules Of The Game'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Former 'Post' Editor Details The 'Rules Of The Game'

Former 'Post' Editor Details The 'Rules Of The Game'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about newspapers on today's show. Later, we'll hear from John Yemma, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which will soon replace its daily print edition with a Web site-only edition.

My first guest, Leonard Downie, just retired from the Washington Post where he was the executive editor for 17 years, during which time the paper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes. A summer internship first brought him to the paper back in 1964. During his long career at the Post, he was also an investigative reporter, supervised much of the Watergate coverage, was the London correspondent, national editor and managing editor. Now he's the vice president at large.

We're going to talk about changes he's seen in the business and some of the most difficult editorial decisions he's had to make over the years. He's written a new novel which is about morally ambiguous conflicts between journalists, politicians and lobbyists. It's called "The Rules of the Game."

Leonard Downie, welcome back to Fresh Air.

Mr. LEONARD DOWNIE, JR. (Former Executive Editor, Washington Post; Author, "The Rules of the Game"): Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: In your novel, a Democratic presidential nominee decides to choose an inexperienced young woman senator as his vice-presidential pick, and she's seen more as a People magazine kind of person than vice-presidential material. Did you see any parallels when Sarah Palin was nominated?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Terry, this was eerie. I wrote that backdrop for the novel about four or five years ago before the rest of the plot was fully realized in my mind, and then suddenly, you know, unexpectedly, of course, John McCain became the nominee of the party. And then it was so shocking when he picked Sarah Palin. It was very eerie for me and actually a little frightening because I know John McCain, and in the novel, of course, this ticket is elected. He becomes president, the older senator does, but he dies within the first year of office, and the young woman vice president becomes president. And well, I was a little worried for John.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, right, like if you had powers of prediction that would be a really dangerous thing for...

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Right. It felt a little like voodoo there for a while.

GROSS: Tell us about one of the journalistic ethical dilemmas that you've put in your novel that parallels something you faced as a reporter or editor.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I was an investigative reporter as a young man myself, and how you deal with your sources, particularly sources that have axes to grind - in fact, I've also come across this as an editor in directing other reporters because most - many sources operate out of altruistic motives. They're very concerned about something that's going on. For instance, the sources for Dana Priest's reporting about the secret CIA prisons around the world where terrorist suspects were being held and questioned and we now probably know that in some cases were probably being tortured - these were people that did have altruistic motives who were worried about this kind of conduct on behalf of the United States' government.

But at other times, sources have their own motivations that are not so altruistic. They may be out to get somebody else. They may be trying to protect their own hide when they've done something wrong. They may simply want to, you know, manipulate people around them or a situation in their workplace. And so sorting out those motivations and figuring out whether or not they're telling you the truth, and particularly where they're telling you the whole truth or not is, as I think you can see in the work of the investigate reporter in this novel, quite often you pick up these bits and pieces from people but you don't know what the whole picture is. In some cases, you don't even really know who exactly they are. I mean, you know, they have a name and they have a job, but where are they really coming from?

GROSS: You were executive editor of the Washington Post during the eight years of the Bush presidency. Now that you've retired and the Bush presidency is coming to an end, I'd like you to reflect on covering the Bush administration for eight years. It was a presidency with very little press access, a presidency that relied on secrecy a lot. Can you discuss some of your greatest frustrations as a journalist during the Bush administration?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: It actually was more of a challenge for us than frustration, and over time, we were able to overcome the barriers, I think, that were put up. But it was an administration that began with very strong message control. It was a small group of people that by and large came up from Texas, surrounding the president and insisted that the entire administration - it picked Cabinet members who by and large toe the line on message control. They also instituted a lot of secrecy, made secret a lot of things that had been open before, used 9/11 as an excuse, I think, for increasing government secrecy, making it more difficult to find things through the Freedom of Information Act, classifying things that had not previously been classified, conducting meetings that, you know, were not made public where, for instance, the vice president's -group the vice president assembled in order to discuss energy policy was never - members of that group were never even named, much less the minutes of their meetings being released.

This sort of thing just continued throughout the administration, but as happened with every administration, over time, there were fissures within the administration itself. Obviously, the disagreements between the State Department and the Defense Department over the conduct of the Iraq war and its aftermath, for example, gave rise to the kind of leaks, if you will, that will come out of an administration when people find themselves frustrated trying to communicate within the administration. They carry out their communications through the media. And so over time, we were able to crack open a lot of the secrecy of the administration.

The interesting thing, I think, about the new administration - it's something I'm going to probably want to write about - is that message control is quite similar, actually, amongst the Obama people to the Bush people - for the - as it was for the Bush people at this stage, you know, on the eve of taking office. During the campaign, the Obama campaign, I think it was No Drama Obama was the slogan, which meant let's not air our disagreements in public. Let's stick to our message.

And I am concerned about whether or not this administration will really be as open to the media as a lot of people expect it to be in contrast to the Bush administration. They have promised to provide more government information to the public via the Internet, and that's a good thing, but we'll see how open this administration really is.

GROSS: One of the stories that was published while you were executive editor of the Washington Post was Dana Priest's stories on the secret CIA prisons. And this is something the Bush administration really wanted to keep secret because in these prisons, you know, the quote "extreme interrogation techniques" were being used. So were there pressures on you to not publish the story about these secret CIA prisons?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yes, there were. It's not unusual. It's happened in the past, as well, that we are working on a story that the government will say threatens national security and you either shouldn't publish the entire story or at least shouldn't publish certain details that they think would be particularly threatening to national security. And as always the case, we listen carefully to the government, and we did so in this case. We listened to intelligence officials and ultimately officials in the White House to their arguments about why they thought we shouldn't publish anything about this or if we were going to publish anything about it, details that they thought we should leave out. We would ask for explanations about why they thought it would be harmful to national security.

In the end, we have to make the judgment ourselves. I had to make the final decision as executive editor. People often ask, who are you to be an expert on national security? The answer is, of course, I'm not, but I do have to make decisions every day about what goes into the newspaper, what does not go into the newspaper. And this is one of those. That decision has to rest with me, not with the government.

In that case, after hearing the government out in great detail, we decided the only thing we would eliminate from the story - two things we eliminated from the story. One, which we had never put in the story in the first place, were other arrangements that our government had to fight terrorism with these countries where these secret prisons were located. And that was not part of what we were looking into. They remain secret. We did not publish anything about them.

But they also didn't want us to name the countries themselves, and I became convinced that in fact it would open up the possibility of these other very proper, anti-terrorism arrangements being exposed if we named the countries in Eastern Europe where these secret prisons were located, and we did not do so. That was not the central facts of the story. The central facts of the story were the existence of these secret prisons and the kinds of interrogations that were going on in them and the fact that people in the intelligence services were very worried that some things were going wrong there. And the story succeeded in doing that. The president shut down the secret prisons, moved the prisoners to Guantanamo. They're now being dealt with in a legal fashion.

GROSS: You know, in talking about Bush administration reaction to Washington press stories, I'm thinking here about Tom Ricks, who was the Pentagon correspondent...

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yes.

GROSS: For a long time for the Washington Post, recently left that position. And he wrote the book that basically gave the title to the war in Iraq, the book "Fiasco, " which was a bestseller and was filled with interesting information about how we got into the war and how we mismanaged it once we started the war and got into Iraq. Did the Bush administration get back to you about that book and then say, well, he's so critical of the war, you can't let him cover the Pentagon anymore?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Actually, we did - we have several Pentagon reporters, and we were careful about which stories Tom pursued after he wrote that book so that there wouldn't be conflicts between the views he expressed in the book and his coverage. And then he segued out of the Pentagon beat and is now doing other things. He's doing a blog for us, and he's going to write more books, and so he's no longer a full-time reporter in our newsroom.

But in general terms, no, I did not get - I got pushed back, actually, on another book that Rajiv Chandrasekaran did about the Green Zone, which I did hear more about. By the time that Tom Ricks' "Fiasco" book came out, if you recall, he quoted an awful lot of generals by name who were concerned about the mismanagement of the war so that the issues he was pursuing were already very controversial and even controversial within the administration itself. So it was not something that the administration would, you know, would say, you know, you never should - that book never should have been published, you should take him off the beat.

But there did come a time late in the presidency when senior officials complained to me about a general negativity that they felt was in our coverage of the administration. They did cite some of the books our reporters has done as further examples of that negativity, in addition to what was in the newspaper. And I listened carefully to what they had to say.

GROSS: And then ignored it. Is that what you're saying?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I never ignore it, but I - we do want to make sure that when reporters write books that do express views on what they've been covering, that if those views are strong enough to create conflicts in their reporting that we recuse them from that coverage afterwards. So for instance, Rajiv Chandrasekaran was not any longer covering Iraq or the Green Zone after that book was published.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Leonard Downie. He recently retired from his position as the long-time executive editor of the Washington Post. He first joined the Post in 1964 as an intern, and he is now a vice president at large for the Washington Post Company. He's written a new novel, and the novel's called "The Rules of the Game." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Leonard Downie. He recently retired from his position as the long-time executive editor of the Washington Post. He's written a new novel called "The Rules of the Game."

What's another story that was difficult for you to decide about whether you should publish or not from the Bush or any other administration?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: There's a whole other category of difficult decisions, and that involves the private lives of public figures. And there are two good examples of that. One is when Bob Dole was running for president. Towards the end of that campaign, we and other news organizations were given information that he had had an affair 28 years earlier with a young woman who was raising money for him. She was not on his staff. She just was a fundraiser. They knew each other. And the question was, do we publish that story within the last I think it was three or four weeks of the presidential campaign?

Well, the first thing you have to do is decide is this true and could we prove it? And then you decide is it relevant to the public person or to the campaign or to the job that they have?

And in this case, we discovered it was an affair when his first marriage had disintegrated to the point that he was living in the basement of his home. He was divorced shortly afterwards, and the affair was consensual. Her friends knew about it. His friends knew about it, which is how we were able to confirm it. It was out in the open. It was not utilizing his government position. I think he was a congressman at the time. And of course, later, the affair ended, and later he met and married Elizabeth Dole. And the marriage, as far as we know, was without incident all these years. And so there were debates in the newsroom, debates at meetings that I conducted with editors and reporters about whether or not we should publish this story.

And on the one hand, I'd always said that everything about a presidential candidate is fair game, that voters need to know everything. On the other hand, I had the feeling that there's like a statute of limitations here. This was 28 years ago, had no impact whatsoever on his current conduct as senator or his conduct as the candidate for president, and decided ultimately not to publish that story.

The National Enquirer - which impressed me with how accurate their reporting was - did run the story, and interestingly enough, no other newspaper, no other news organization, no TV network, no radio network ran the story after the National Enquirer story. They must have come to the same conclusion that I came, so that made me feel a little better about my decision. And then of course...

GROSS: Let me stop you right there.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yeah.

GROSS: That leads me to the John Edwards story, which...

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Exactly, that's where I was going next.

GROSS: OK, great. Which the National Enquirer broke...

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Right.

GROSS: And then other mainstream media had to decide, are they going to go with this story or are they going to not go with it? So what went through your mind when the National Enquirer broke the story and did you already know about the story?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: We had heard rumors. The National Enquirer clearly had an informant that none of the rest of us had.

GROSS: And I should say - I didn't say what the story was.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I'm sorry.

GROSS: The story was, you know, that he had had an affair with another woman, and then what was questionable also was whether he - that woman had carried his baby or not.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: We had heard rumors about this relationship. She had worked as a videographer for his campaign, so she had been directly employed by him at one point, and this was while he was running for president, which made it more relevant than something that would have happened 28 years before. It was very current, and he had denied at once the National Enquirer stories. It was a series of stories in the National Enquirer, and he had denied them, which raised the question, of course, of whether or not he was telling the truth. And at that point, it was a question of whether or not he was going to be considered for vice president by Barack Obama, who had been assured of the nomination by the time this story had broke.

So we did feel this was relevant to - particularly to his candidacy as vice president if Obama was going to choose him. But first, we had to see if the story was true, and that was the problem. The National Enquirer had an informant that nobody else had, and everybody else associated with it had clammed up, and so we weren't able to prove that it was true.

However, we continued our reporting, and I actually had a conversation off the record with John Edwards in which he denied everything very cleverly. And he also told me during that conversation that he was not being considered to be vice-presidential candidate, that he had told Obama that he wouldn't accept it if he was considered and that he had not been vetted for it. And I realized that he had told me that because he wanted to make - he wanted to make clear to me that there might not be a relevancy case - he's a good lawyer - that it might not be relevant for us to publish that story to his political future.

But we continued to work on it, and then, of course, he decided - I guess because so many of us were working on it and had not agreed with his arguments, he decided to make it public himself.

GROSS: You left your position as executive editor at a time when newspapers are in crisis. They're losing money, they're cutting back or eliminating foreign bureaus, losing revenue, there's plummeting stock shares, big debts, and confusion about how to deal with print versusInternet publication of the news.

The Tribune Company, which publishes the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy protection in December. The New York Times has about a billion dollars in debt on its books. According to an article in the Atlantic magazine, newspaper stocks fell an average of 83.3 percent in 2008. Do you see yourself as having left your position as executive editor at the Washington Post at the end of an era in newspaper history?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: It's definitely the end of an era, but it's not the end of time for journalism. It's the end of an era in which - actually, my entire career traces the arc of this era, beginning in the mid-'60s, probably to roughly the mid-'90s. It was the era of the big, strong newspapers. All their staff has expanded, they made lots of money, their circulation reached a peak. It was the golden era of American newspapers. And the Internet has changed all of that - the way the audience reads the news and gets their news, and it has changed the way in which news is paid for. Newspaper circulation has gone down. Newspaper advertising revenue has gone down.

But at the same time, we have acquired this huge audience on the Internet of 10 to 20 million unique visitors a month. So more people are reading Washington Post journalism than ever before. The series of articles we did on how soldiers were being treated - wounded soldiers were being treated at Walter Reed Hospital had 5 million page views and an extraordinary response from people across the world over the Internet that forced the government to take immediate action to change things at Walter Reed, fire the Army secretary, et cetera. None of that would have been possible without the Internet. So that's the good news.

The bad news is that the economic models in which newspaper newsrooms that did all this work were built have been shattered, so we're going to have to reinvent the economic models for news gathering. It does mean that newsrooms have to be smaller than they were before. In the cases of some newspapers, they may be becoming much too small, and I'm worried about whether or not some cities around the country are going to have sufficiently large newsrooms to cover their communities well enough.

Or in the case of newspapers like the Post, they're in a better situation. I had built the newsroom so large as executive editor that there's room for it to get smaller and more efficient. We are merging the newsrooms of our Web site and our print newsroom, which it's time to do for journalistic reasons as well as financial reasons. So I believe we're going to find a way ahead here that's going to keep Washington Post journalism alive and well, but it does require a lot of change, and that's what's going on.

GROSS: You've retired as executive editor from the Washington Post at the same time that Phil Bennett is leaving his position as managing editor. Jim Brady, the executive editor, is soon stepping down. Last year, a new publisher took over, Katharine Weymouth. It sounds like there's a lot of changes happening at the Washington Post, and I was wondering if it's any coincidence that there are so many personnel changes at the top happening at the same time.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: No, it's probably not a coincidence. It's partly a generational change, as well. I was 66 years old when I retired last year. My successor, Marcus Brauchli, who came from the Wall Street Journal, is nearly 20 years younger - is 20 years younger than I am. Katharine Weymouth is a generation younger than her uncle, who's Don Graham, the CEO of the Washington Post, and Bo Jones, who'd previously been the publisher of the newspaper, is now vice chairman of the corporation.

And we are, as I said earlier, merging these two news operations. We have a separate news operation for the Web. It's highly successful. We have one of the most visited Web sites among American news organizations. But it needs now to be merged with the newspaper newsrooms so that we have a newsroom that is a multi-platform, multi-purpose newsroom that is actually platform agnostic. So in making that drastic change, it's not surprising that some of us that were leading the ships and were in a different formation are now stepping aside for people that will have new ideas about how to reorganize us for the future.

GROSS: Leonard Downie, Jr. will be back in the second half of the show. He recently retired from his position as executive editor of the Washington Post. His new novel about journalism and politics is called "The Rules of the Game." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Leonard Downie, Jr. He recently retired from the Washington Post where he worked for 44 years, 17 of which he served as executive editor. He's written a new novel about journalism and politics called "The Rules of the Game."

You tried so hard to be fair in your work as journalist that you haven't voted during what - during your whole career as a journalist?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: No, starting when I became managing editor in 1984 because when Ben made me the managing editor he also put me in charge of the newspaper day to day. I had the final say on what went in the newspaper every day unless Ben wanted to overrule me on something.

So I realized that I was the final gatekeeper for fairness for the paper. And I decided that I did not want decide, even in the privacy of my own tiny mind or the privacy of a voting booth, who should be the president of the United States, who should be mayor of Washington, D.C., whether we should raise or lower taxes. And I wanted to keep my - I wanted to keep completely open-minded to all sides of everything that we were recovering, and as a result I stopped voting then and continued not voting until my retirement. The day after I retired, my wife registered me in the District of Columbia. She wisely registered me as having no party because she knew that I would be independent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: And when the next election rolls around, I'll vote.

GROSS: I didn't know that a spouse can register you. I thought you had to do that yourself.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: I had to sign something. She went online. You can register online in the district. So she fills it all out...

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: And then she gets a document back, and I had to sign the document to make it official. But as soon as she had filled out the forms, even before I signed the document because this is a public site, it immediately was available on the Internet, and a few blogs that had been fascinated with my not voting over the years immediately posted my registration form.

GROSS: I have to confess to you, I have very mixed feelings about your not having voted all those years. On the one hand, I have just enormous respect for the seriousness in which you take your obligation to be unbiased and to be fair and to keep an open mind and to do whatever it takes to keep an open mind. At the same time, I am a member of this democracy, and I feel like anyone who's as informed as you should have a vote. I want anyone as smart and informed as you are being a voter, and you know, having equal say with people who don't read the news at all and vote anyways.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Well, I know this is a dilemma for people, and in fact, there are some people who get very angry with me about it - and including my kids, by the way, when they were young and in school, and they went to these schools that were very civic-minded. And they'd all be asked, you know, who are your parents voting for? And my kids would have to say, my father doesn't vote, and the teacher would come down on them pretty hard about that.

(Soundbite of laugher)

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: So it was kind of embarrassing for them. But at the Washington Post, we take seriously the fact that we exercise very vigorously our First Amendment rights as a newspaper. And we, for instance, fight subpoenas for our reporters. We try to protect confidential sources. We do lot of things that really stretch our First Amendment rights, and as a result, the people who work at the paper give up some of their own personal rights to work at the Washington Post.

Other staff members are certainly allowed to vote, but they are not allowed to engage in any other political activity. They can't sign petitions, march in demonstrations, contribute to political campaigns or even contribute to organizations that lobby the Congress. Nothing like that. They give up those rights to work at the Washington Post. So I felt it was important as the final gatekeeper that I give up my right to vote when I was exercising these very profound rights that I had as executive editor of the Washington Post.

GROSS: Well, in addition to giving up your right to vote, you also gave up your right to read your own papers op-ed page because you didn't - the editorial page, I should say.

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: The editorial page.

GROSS: Because you didn't want to know what the editorials were saying. You didn't want them to influence your own thinking and your own ability to maintain an open mind. Are you reading the pages now?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: Yes, I am. And I don't know if the editor of the editorial page is going to regret that or not because now I can kibitz what I couldn't kibitz before. We had a very strict - we have a very strict separation here at the Washington Post between the editorial page, which we call the church, and the news-gathering operation, which we call the state, and the separation between church and state is absolute. The editorial page members have nothing to do with the coverage and the rest of the newspaper, and I had nothing to do with the editorial positions of the newspaper. So I did not want to be influenced by them, and as a result, I did not read the editorials.

GROSS: You're going to start teaching journalism soon. What are you going to tell your students in this time of transition and uncertainty in the news world?

Mr. DOWNIE, JR.: That this profession is a calling and that it is so very important to the American people to provide them the information they need to run this country properly as citizens and voters. And it's not going to go away. It's going to take different forms. You're not going to probably be able to work for the same news organization as I did for 44 years. You're not going to be certain which platforms you're going to produce which journalism for. There are going to be technologies that we don't know about now that will be very important 10 years from now - change the nature of your jobs. That the work is very long. You have to be very dedicated to it. I didn't have dinner with my families over the years most nights when I was working. It's an anti-social kind of job, but it is very, very rewarding in what you provide for the American people and that it's worth sticking it out and joining this great adventure in figuring out how we're going to present the news in the future.

GROSS: Leonard Downie, Jr. is the former executive editor of the Washington Post and author of the new novel, "The Rules of the Game." The Christian Science Monitor is about to become the first daily paper to give up its daily print edition and publish daily only on its Web site. We'll talk to the paper's editor, John Yemma, after a break. This is Fresh Air.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.