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len downie

Since 1991, Downie has been executive editor of The Washington Post, the newspaper at which he has worked since 1964. He is the author of several books, including The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril [2002]. In this interview Downie draws on his long experience at the Post -- from Watergate to reporter Dana Priest's stories on secret CIA prisons to the Post's transition into the digital age -- to discuss the issues facing the media today. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted April 19, 2006.

... [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest's stories on the secret prisons: The reporting for that, before they were published, got the attention, as I understand it, of the administration.

This is not unusual. Dana's very, very deeply sourced throughout the military and throughout the intelligence services, ... and a number of these sources were concerned about some of the policies that the administration was carrying out in the war against terrorism. ... These are people who, as Dana describes them, are very strong proponents of the war against terrorism; they're active in the war against terrorism. But they're concerned that some of these methods were counterproductive. ... So for these reasons they would cooperate with her when she'd ask questions about things that added up to some of these stories. ...

As is often the case with this kind of reporting, somewhere along the line, her reporting reaches a high enough level that officials ... will raise questions about whether or not some of the things she knows would, in their minds, harm national security if we publish them. In some cases, it's things that they know are embarrassing to them, or things that they know will cause them to have to make changes, maybe expensive changes, in what they're doing.

For instance, these secret prisons in Eastern Europe, as far as we know, by and large have been shut down; people have been moved elsewhere. That's inconvenient for the government, so they would rather not have that happen. They'd rather have us not publish the story.

In other cases, they might raise legitimate national security concerns where we would agree that yes, this particular piece of information is not helpful to readers, is not helpful to judging policy, but would be very harmful to national security. An example of that is we've written stories about places west of Washington where officials of the government are every day [working as a] shadow government in case Washington is shut down or destroyed by an attack of any kind. We've written about that, but we don't give the location of it; we don't say which officials are there, because what's important for people to know is that this place exists, and they can decide what they want to think about it. ...

In this case, we published much of what she reported, and we left out some facts that we were persuaded probably would be unnecessarily injurious to national security, mainly the names of certain countries. ...

“Certainly the relationship between this administration and the media is not a good one, and certainly we believe that the secrecy has been excessive, quite excessive. But at the same time, their job is to do their job, and our job is to find out what's going on.”

There came a time when very senior officials in the administration asked to talk to me, along with Dana and her editors about their questions about whether or not some of the things she knows would, in their mind, harm national security if we published them. ...

Who called you?

I can't tell you that, because I agreed to ground rules in which they would not be named. They're senior officials of the government, very senior officials of the government. ...

And we agreed to do this. And people may wonder why I would agree to ground rules like that. Because, A, we want to get the story right, and if we have to accept those ground rules to be sure we're right, we want to do that; and B, because we want to not maliciously harm national security, and if somebody's got a serious issue to raise about that, I want to hear it on whatever ground rules they want to present it to me. ...

When someone argues that there's a threat to national security, what does that mean to you?

First of all, it means that I take it seriously. In deciding what we're going to publish in The Washington Post, we do not want to knowingly harm human life or knowingly harm national security. Now, that obviously is an easy thing to say, and actually making decisions about it is much more difficult, because there are all these gray areas. ...

But we're at war. The president says we're at war.

Yes he does.

I could see someone out there saying, "Who are you to decide what's in the interest of the country? What's national security? What isn't?"

The Washington Post consists of a certain number of pages every day. We can only fit so much news in there every day. ... That's the first threshold of our decision-making. Then we have to decide whether what we're going to publish is accurate and whether it's fair, whether it's libelous or not. We make these decisions every day, so decisions about whether something would be harmful to national security or not is just another one of those many decisions we make about what we're going to publish or not going to publish.

Under our constitutional system, those decisions cannot be made by the government. That's unconstitutional. And it also would be dangerous to our democracy. It has to be left to editors and television producers to make these decisions. ...

It caused an uproar in Europe. There were investigations.

I don't regard that as a national security problem. A national security problem would be endangering agents, causing sensitive operations to end as a result of our reporting unnecessarily. The controversy, the policy discussions -- that's what journalism is for, to cause those things to take place. ...

But you know that there's been concern, particularly in the intelligence community, for many years that because of these leaks, because America can't keep secrets, it damages them at home; they'll be less cooperative with us.

Yeah, that's an argument that's made on both sides. But when you look at history, when you look at actual operations and whether or not they've been caused to end by this kind of reporting, you don't see much evidence of that. ...

When another newspaper published that Osama bin Laden was using a satellite phone, apparently afterward he threw it away and has never been heard again on such a phone, right?

... There have been cases where we have done reporting about the hunt for Osama bin Laden ... and other members of Al Qaeda, and means of communication have arisen in our reporting. Government officials have raised questions about whether or not that reporting would cause terrorist leaders to alter their behavior because of technological things we might publish, ... and we've not published them for that reason. Whether the incident you cited actually took place or not I believe is in controversy. ...

Porter Goss at a hearing says, "I am looking forward to seeing reporters standing in the well of the grand jury and testifying." ... So he clearly feels that your newspaper and The New York Times have been damaging national security.

Either he feels that, or he feels that we have brought scrutiny of actions that the CIA has undertaken that are open to review by the public and by the Congress, and he didn't want to have them reviewed by the public and the Congress. ...

Do you believe certain things should be classified?

Sure. As I say, there are lots of things we know ... that have not been published in The Washington Post. There are things that I know that were reported as long ago by reporters as several decades ago that we've never published in the newspaper, and I've never uttered a word about, because it's clear to me it would be harmful to national security. But at the same time, many times that claim is made by the government because they want to avoid embarrassment.

Is there a procedure at The Washington Post for how you handle anonymous sources?

Yes, there is. First of all, we really do urge our reporters to be on the record. ... If that's not possible, when stories are turned into editors [and] there are quotes or there is information cited to unnamed sources of various kinds, the editors ask questions about that: Could this have been on the record? Could it be on the record?

We also ask reporters ... to object to ground rules when they think they're the wrong ground rules; at briefings, for instance, where we think people ought to be on the record. We don't just do that; a number of news organizations in Washington do that. They've often caused what were not going to be on-the-record briefings to be on the record.

But once unnamed sources have been used in a story that's pending for publication, the reporter has to explain to the editor why that's the case. We have to try to craft the best explanation to readers possible in the story as to why the person's not on the record. And at least one editor needs to know the identity of every source. ...

When you make these deals with these senior government officials, do you tell them, if I get subpoenaed to reveal your name, will you release me?

... It's part of the ground-rule discussion: "OK, you're going to remain a confidential source in the paper, but if the Post gets subpoenaed, would you then release me from the confidentiality pledge or not? I just need to know that."

Sometimes sources will say, "Yes, under those circumstances I would release you from your confidentiality pledge; you can identify me." On other situations they'll say, "No, I want to remain anonymous forever." ...

... I've heard discussions among my colleagues, especially in Washington, about not allowing anybody to go off the record or on background. ...

We are being more vigorous. This happens periodically when we think we've fallen into bad habits. We get more vigorous about trying to force as many people as possible on the record. But it's also impossible to have everybody on the record, and it particularly would be impossible to do a lot of accountability reporting, because your best sources are people who literally are jeopardizing their jobs, their livelihoods and sometimes their lives by talking to us, and they then can only do that if they're anonymous. ...

But this administration then orders some of its officials to talk to reporters, to give them selective leaks, to support its position. So why protect them?

Because that's the only way we're going to get that information and then check it out. Sometimes we will not agree to the ground rules; in fact, there are many cases [where] we won't agree to the ground rules. We insist that somebody be on the record, or we insist that a briefing be on the record. ...

This process of background reporting, ... isn't it possible that, in fact, not only is your reporter being manipulated by people, but also your reporter is going to protect the people who are speaking to them on background, protect them also from scrutiny?

Yes. ... They manipulate the media all the time, government officials do. ... What we have to do is sift through people's motives and sift through the accuracy of what they're telling us to determine what stories we ought to publish. ...

Reporters develop friendships, liaisons with cooperative, knowledgeable sources who they want to have keep talking to them on background. They aren't likely to want to turn around and do a story about some illegal or other activity about that source.

The best reporters will do that. In fact, that's one of the ways I judge how good some of our reporters are, how willing they are to do that. ... If we do have a situation where we know something ought to be found out about a source, and the reporter who has a regular relationship with that source isn't willing to do it, then we ask another reporter to do it. And we've done that. ...

If the source has committed murder, you still maintain confidentiality? Are there any limits?

I never have come across a case where a murderer has given us a confidential source for the interview. When there's clear and present danger to the public, we act like normal citizens. If a murderer on the loose calls up The Washington Post -- and this has happened -- the first thing that we say is, "If you want to continue this conversation, I must tell you we're going to inform the police that you just called us, and I wish you'd give yourself up." Then if he wants to continue talking to us, we'll continue talking to him. And then we'll call the police. ...

Let's talk about the ultimate confidential source, Deep Throat, the decision to reveal his identity. What happened?

What happened was that Bob [Woodward] had pledged to Deep Throat that he would not reveal his identity until after he had died, as is the case with a number of other Watergate sources, by the way, whose names are known to Bob's editors but are not known to the public. ...

So in this particular case, Bob was in contact with Mark Felt, who turned out to be Deep Throat, in recent years, and was told by his family that he might be ready to reveal himself as Deep Throat. Bob's conversations with Mark Felt, who was not completely well, did not convince him that Mark Felt was ready to have his identity revealed.

In his estimation, he really wasn't in control of his faculties.

Correct. So Bob did not believe that he had informed consent from Mark Felt to reveal him as Deep Throat and was going to wait until he died. It was Mark Felt's family and lawyer who revealed his identity, and once they had done so, then I made the decision that this constituted their breaking of the confidentiality relationship, and we were free to go ahead and report about it.

Even though the person in question was, if you will, not in control of his faculties.

Absolutely, but because the family was the nearest thing to consent here, and they'd already made it public. ...

In the recent Valerie Plame investigation, ... it now appears that at least two reporters -- one from The New York Times, one from your paper -- were selected by the White House to receive leaked negative information about ... critics of the White House and also certain kinds of declassified information. They never reported on it, but they were trusted in some way.

Apparently that trust was misplaced, because they never reported it. The White House was thwarted in what it was seeking to do.

Right, but they never shared it with anyone either.

No, no. In the case of Bob Woodward, who's one of those reporters, it was an unusual circumstance, because ... all the reporting he was doing was being saved for his book, except for certain things that he thought were so important he would bring them to my attention, as he was supposed to. In that one instance he did not because he was afraid of being subpoenaed once the special counsel's investigation of the Plame leak had begun. That was a mistake on Bob's part. He has apologized for it publicly; he's apologized to me for it. That's not proper behavior. ...

You made a decision to hand over this transcript to the special prosecutor, Bob Woodward's transcript of his conversations with Mr. [Scooter] Libby, [Dick Cheney's former chief of staff].

Yes, his partial transcripts. Yeah. ...

How is that different than, let's say, Norman Pearlstine of Time Inc. handing over [reporter] Matt Cooper's notes?

Each one of these cases is very individual in terms of the law involved and in terms of the circumstances. ... I'm not going to comment on decision making by other news organizations, because I don't know all the facts. ...

... Just so I understand, Matt Cooper was against the e-mails and other files that were handed over, but you're saying Woodward went along with this?

Yes. First of all, it wasn't notes; it wasn't e-mails; it wasn't private conversations. It was a transcript of a recorded interview with a source, and that source waived confidentiality for that interview.

How do you feel about reporters testifying?

We oppose it strongly, and we vigorously oppose it for as long as we can. In some cases we are able to work out an arrangement with a prosecutor or a lawyer in a case where there's very limited testimony -- usually in a deposition, not in the court, because you can limit testimony more easily in a deposition. We agree to certain ground rules where the testimony will not go beyond a certain point. And we never, ever reveal a confidential source; if we're not released from that confidentiality pledged by the source, we do not reveal that source. ...

When you heard about the Cleveland Plain Dealer case, where they decided not to run a story because of the confidential source issue, what was your reaction?

My reaction was I don't know what's happening there. I would like to know more information about why they made those decisions, because it could be among other things they simply don't have the money that the Washington Post has for the legal help to deal with these things. ...

From the outside world, from the world of the Cleveland Plain Dealer or a newspaper or a broadcasting station in Tulsa, Okla., they see the big boys parading before the grand jury.

We're not parading before the grand jury. ... It's not just that the negotiations are smart. You're really evading the principle here. The principle here is that we have not revealed confidential sources. And they know that in Cleveland, and they know it in San Francisco, and they know it in London. We have not revealed confidential sources.

... Did you feel that the kinds of releases that the special prosecutor, Mr. [Patrick] Fitzgerald, got from the White House [were sufficient]?

Our lawyers talked to -- no, that would not have been sufficient. Our lawyers talked to lawyers for the individuals involved to satisfy us that the release was voluntary, personal, directly from that individual, specifically about what it was that we were asked to testify about. A broad, general release would not have been acceptable to us and wasn't acceptable to us. ...

You didn't find it disturbing that different people were making different deals and dealing it with different ways that weaken the news media?

No. Independence is important to the American news media. We don't all act together as a group, despite public thinking otherwise. We have really good lawyers inside and outside our company to help guide us through these things. ...

Is The Washington Post going to publish a full account of everything that's happened?

We have published a full account of everything that's happened, except for his interviews with another unnamed source who has not released us from our confidentiality. That we've not published.

Is a transcript of Woodward's interview being published in The Washington Post?

No, Bob's going to publish a book in which he's going to draw on it, and we have drawn on it. I believe that his public statement of his grand jury testimony also quoted from it. There's no substance in this that has not been reported publicly. ...

Do you worry about Dana Priest being subpoenaed, maybe going to jail?

Yes. She worries about that a lot. She worries about some of her sources going to jail or being subpoenaed or being criminally prosecuted for providing information the public should have. ... I worry about Dana Priest and a number of our other reporters who are potential targets of either government subpoenas or civil suit subpoenas. Where people are going to demand that they reveal confidential sources which they're not going to do. And I worry that the ultimate end of that will be that somebody will have to go to jail. That worries me a lot.

In my 37 years in the business, I don't remember anything like this going on before. ... There's apparently a couple of squads of FBI agents at the Washington field office; that's all they're doing, looking for leaks.

Right. I can't remember a precedent for this either. ...

Today I talked with a source of mine, who said he just got polygraphed.

Yeah, that's going on all around town. There're investigations of sources going on all around town, and it's very, very worrying. It's not good. It's not good for the free flow of information to the public, and it's not good to criminalize sources and reporters who are merely engaged in trying to keep the American public properly informed.

A former official of the FBI ... said to me that these leak investigations only happen when somebody high up, someone very powerful like the president, wants them to happen.

I simply don't know if that's the case here or not, but certainly senior officials, very senior officials, have ordered these investigations. There's no doubt about that. These investigations can't be conducted without the orders of the head of the CIA, the head of the FBI. ...

What do you say to somebody like Richard Jewell, [who was accused of bombing the 1996 Atlanta Olympics], who wants to know who the FBI official or law enforcement official is who leaked his name; or Wen Ho Lee, [the Los Alamos scientist accused of spying for China], who wants to know who is the official in the U.S. government who leaked his name to reporters? Doesn't a reporter have an obligation to allow someone to clear their name or to get some kind of justice?

Our obligation is to report the facts to the people, so if there is an injustice that we should be reporting publicly, we report it publicly. Our obligation is also to maintain confidentiality of source relationships, and if sources don't release us from that confidentiality for whatever the reason, we must maintain it. ... Once you break that confidentiality once, it harms our reporting from now on.

I wanted you to comment on a statement made by Andrew Card when he was [President Bush's] chief of staff. ... He said: "The press don't represent the public any more than other people do. In our democracy, the people who represent the public stood for election. I don't believe you have a check-and-balance function."

Well, not only do I disagree with him, I find this ironic, and I'll tell you a story about it. We all like to quote Jefferson in our business, but Jefferson made clear ... that he expected the press to have that role. The First Amendment specifically gives us the independence and the freedom to have that role. Whether or not we represent the public is a technical notion, because in a representative democracy elected officials represent the public. We serve the public. We provide the public the information they need in order to be informed citizens and exercise their rights as citizens.

But it's interesting that Andy Card would say something like that, because earlier I was telling you ... [there was a story that] had to do with the locations west of Washington where government officials go every day to work ... in case the government is destroyed in Washington. ... Andy Card called me and asked if we were working on that story. ... We had what was I thought a very civil and constructive exchange in which he completely recognized the public service function of our publishing the story. ...

But do you think that this administration, in a way that we haven't seen since the Nixon administration, has a hostile relationship with the press?

All during the time that I've been working at The Washington Post, every administration at one point or another has had a hostile relationship with the media. It comes and it goes. Obviously the Clinton administration was very angry with The Washington Post during the period in which we were reporting on Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. ...

The Carter administration, when they first came to Washington, were very unhappy with the reporting that indicated that they were off to a slow start in their administration, making mistakes. The first President Bush was not pleased at all with the way the press covered him and blamed the press for his not being re-elected.

Probably the one administration that had the best relationship with the press, ironically, ... was the Reagan administration, because they knew that to get angry at us was not helpful to their cause. So instead they would try to kill us with kindness. Jim Baker, when he worked [as chief of staff] for President Reagan, was always available to reporters who covered him, ... but of course he was trying to manipulate them the whole time. So they had an entirely different approach.

This administration came to town determined, like all administrations, to control the message, and they tried to do it through secrecy. ...

But they're just the opposite of the Clinton administration when it comes to, let's say, freedom of information, declassification of documents. They're reclassifying things.

Yes, that's correct. The rationale they use is that we're now at war against terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, and I believe that rationale is not nearly adequate to cover a lot of the secrecy that they're trying to carry out.

This president had fewer press conferences than almost any president in living memory, so access has changed. I know you were trying to be evenhanded there, but it seems like there's a war with the press going on, not just with terrorism.

Certainly the relationship between this administration and the media is not a good one, and certainly we believe that the secrecy has been excessive, quite excessive. But at the same time, their job is to do their job, and our job is to find out what's going on. This always happens with the administrations after they've been around in Washington for a while: Personnel begins to change; schisms occur within the administration itself; its control over the message begins to fray. We're finding out more and more all the time. ...

Every person we speak with who would identify themselves as a conservative journalist says: "Bias? If you think we're biased, look at The Washington Post, that liberal newspaper."

All I can say is that people just need to read us and then decide whether we're liberal or not. We're an independent newspaper. We have a strict separation, between the editorial page -- which, last I heard, is a supporter, for instance, of the Iraq war and considered by many liberals to be rather conservative -- and our news gathering.

In our news gathering, we seek to be strictly nonpartisan and nonideological. We're human beings, we make mistakes, but we do not set out to be, nor do I think we are, liberal. And judging from my e-mail traffic in recent years, the left is much more critical, and much more angrily critical, of our coverage than the right has been.

The Pew Foundation did a study, and it said 48 percent of the people that they polled said that the people who decide what's in the news are out of touch with reality, with their reality. So how do you see yourself as being a representative of the public's right to know?

We are the access point for the public's right to know; we enable them to get the information that people ought to have. I'm clearly not a representative of the general public myself, although I'm not an Ivy Leaguer. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to a state university in Ohio. I've never been part of the Eastern liberal establishment. And I don't vote; I stopped voting in 1984 because I wanted to be completely nonpartisan and nonideological as the final gatekeeper of what goes in The Washington Post. ...

We have very strict rules at the newspaper where members of our staff are not allowed to be in politics of any kind except to vote: They can't contribute money to candidates; they can't belong to any organizations that lobby Congress; they can't participate in demonstrations; they can't sign petitions.

Because you think your reporters and you are objective?

No. "Objective" is not a good term, because nobody's objective. We're all human beings. If I said that the tie that you're wearing right now was maroon, you might say it's dark red, and we could both be correct; there's no objective way of describing the color of your tie.

Instead, there's a fair way of describing your tie: I cannot say that your tie is full of spots, it is dirty and should have been laundered a long time ago, because that wouldn't be fair. That wouldn't be accurate, and it wouldn't be fair. So we try to be accurate and fair as best we can every day. And we make mistakes, and we correct them the next day.

So if someone says that you are a biased organization, or liberal?

No. ... Unbiased and objective are two different things. "Biased" means I would go into editing a story wanting it to come out pro-Democrat or pro-Republican, liberal or conservative, whereas "objective" would mean that I have absolutely an empty mind while editing stories, and that's not true.

But research polls that are done with readers, with your audience, say that they do perceive bias in elections, in whom you support.

Sure. Well, readers bring bias to their reading of the newspaper and to their watching of the television. The very same article in The Washington Post can draw very strong negative e-mails these days from both the left and the right, because the right want it to come out from their viewpoint; the left want it to come out from their viewpoint. ...

Do you see more influence in terms of the Internet, bloggers, in your own coverage?

... The influence is twofold. One is they often come up with tips for us. There are a lot of intelligent people out there either running blogs or contributing to blogs, including experts in various fields, and they may find out something first. The first questions raised about the validity of the memo that CBS news had about President Bush's service in the National Guard was brought up by a blogger, some guy that was an expert on type. ...

The other way in which they have a relationship with the mainstream media is that most blogs link to us all the time. Most blogs are about the coverage in the mainstream media, so as a result they drive a lot of readers to our Web site.

But a lot of the criticism from bloggers originally came from conservative bloggers and conservative commentators on newspapers like The Washington Post, not from liberals.

No, not so much. ... On television, cable television and in opinion journals, the voices were stronger on the right. But ever since the blogosphere has been around, for what, two or three years now, the left and right have been equally strong and vocal. ...

Do more people read The Washington Post online?

It's harder to count precisely on the Internet as opposed to selling newspapers, which you can count very precisely. I'd say on a given day, a million and a half to 2 million people read The Washington Post; we sell fewer copies than that, but more than one person reads each copy. On the Internet, ... [roughly] 5 million people read us every day on the Internet, but again, you can count page views easier than you can count individual people. ...

This movement of The Washington Post online, is The Washington Post going toward convergence? Is that your future?

Oh, we've converged. If you came over to our newsroom right now, the first thing you would see is our continuous news desk, where every day we do radio. All of our reporters are on Washington Post Radio, a local radio station that we provide all the content for.

You would see reporters and editors sending news as it breaks to our Internet site, You would see reporters and editors being interviewed on camera for television and the television studio we have, ... all of this right in the middle of the newsroom. We are a multimedia newsroom already. ...

We own a Spanish-language newspaper in Washington; we own a free tabloid newspaper that's given away in the subways; we have the printed Washington Post; and we have, which has the largest audience of all of our various platforms. ...

And how profitable is it?

It is currently profitable, and its advertising revenue is growing. One of the challenges for the businesspeople, obviously, is making sure that you're able to get advertising on all those platforms, to decide whether or not we're eventually going to charge subscription prices to In time, all of that will have to be decided. At the moment we're sufficiently profitable in these many platforms.

You're not being rescued by Kaplan [the test-prep company that acquired The Washington Post Company in 1984]?

Don Graham, our chairman and CEO, has done a really smart job of diversifying our company as much as possible while staying in the general area of news media and education. Kaplan is a very important part of The Washington Post Company. It's been very helpful to its overall financial health and probably to its stock price. But if the newspaper were still left alone, we still would make a profit.

Enough of a profit?

Enough is in the eyes of Wall Street. I'm a journalist; one dollar is enough of a profit for me, but probably not for our investors.

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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