Towards the end of All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and The Washington Post, the new memoir from former Washington Post Editor-in-Chief Len Downie, there is an irony so great only a journalist can overlook it. Few pages after Downie quote this terrible, nonsensical stereotype that “the job of journalism is to comfort those who are affected and to burden those who are at ease”. It’s January 2008 and Downie is called to publisher Bo Jones’ office and informed that it is time for him to leave. Downie doesn’t take the news well. “I went numb when he went over the details… I was determined not to show how shocked I was. I didn’t argue or ask questions. “After retiring from Jones’ office, Downie called his wife,” Something big, something life changing just happened, “he said.
It’s a great setback: the man who wants to harass the comfortable (why the comfortable should be attacked was never really explained) was indeed one of the most comfortable – the wealthy frontrunner in one of the richest and most elite media empires in the country. He’s suddenly out of work – you could say he’s suffering from unemployment (although his retirement perks ensured he had a soft landing).
The reason for Downie’s dismissal was the changed nature of journalism. By 2008 the digital revolution had used up advertising costs, and Swiss Post wanted younger, sharper employees to cope with the change. Soon the paper, which had been owned by the Graham family since 1933, would be sold. The post was bought by Jeff Bezos from Amazon in 2013. Since then, the paper, which has always been reliably liberal, has turned sharply to the left and has become sloppy, hysterical and radical. Donald Trump drove her insane.
Though Downie’s tenure was relatively young, All About the Story reads like an artifact from another and distant era when journalists were liberal, but not corrupt, double zealots for social justice. Downie headed the post from 1991 to 2008 and took over after the legendary Ben Bradlee resigned. Under Downie’s leadership, the Post won 25 Pulitzer Awards, including three Pulitzer Gold Medals for Public Service. One of the most impressive stories highlighted the dire conditions soldiers faced at Walter Reed Medical Center. The exposé led to real reforms.
Downie, a phlegmatic man, was born in Cleveland to parents who valued humility. He attended Ohio State University, which led his colleagues at the Ivy League Post to refer to him as a “Land Grant Downie”. From a young age he was “addicted” to journalism and worked on his college newspaper. His parents taught him to be curious and see both sides of a problem, a fact that Downie says explains his view that abortion is “a real dilemma”. He began as an intern at the Washington Post in 1964 and soon worked his way up to city reporter, then to various senior level editors, and finally to top position.
All About the Story provides insight into the hard work of reporting local stories as well as some of the most important historical events of the past 50 years: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the 9/11 attacks, and the Invasion of Iraq. The weakest chapter deals with the 1968 riots that devastated large parts of Washington. Downie is superficial and superficial here, ignoring the radical nature of those who caused the destruction.
For some reason, Donald Trump, an aggressive, somewhat weird businessman from New York, has driven the press crazy and incapable of seeing two sides of a problem as Len Downie did.
Of course, Downie spends a lot of time with Watergate, which turned the Post staff into movie stars and the Post from a small local newspaper to a rich international one. Reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein drove Richard Nixon out of office, an event that made journalism a sexy and dangerous profession and filled the newsroom with generations of elite liberals and hardcore leftists.
However, the worst performing person in All About the Story is not Nixon, but Hillary Clinton. Downie’s dislike of Clinton is palpable. In 1994, when the newspaper began pursuing “critical questions about the Clintons’ relationship with the failed Madison Guarantee Savings and Loan Association in Little Rock, Arkansas while Bill was governor,” Downie and the First Lady had a tense meeting at the White House. Clinton was irritated that the Post was covering the federal investigation into the Clintons and their Little Rock businesses, but refused to hand over documents related to the case. Downie wouldn’t flinch. Clinton then switched the subject to the various women who claimed to have done business with their husbands – a kind of preemptive strike against their credibility. (She also sent George Stephanopoulos to lunch with Downie, trying to kill the stories.) After the meeting, Clinton spread rumors that Downie wanted to get her and that he was jealous of Ben Bradlee. Despite criticism from other journalists and liberal activists, Downie defends his coverage: “I firmly believe that we did what we should have done to hold the Clintons accountable for their behavior. Even as I write this, I believe that there are still significant unresolved questions about the truthfulness of both Clintons. “
Such a view is not possible with the Washington Post in 2020. The media had a nervous breakdown under President Trump. For some reason, Trump, an aggressive, somewhat weird businessman from New York, drove the press crazy and made them unable to see two sides of a problem as Len Downie did. It can’t all be down to political differences, as Trump supported gay marriage, criticized unnecessary wars, and passed prison reform. Maybe Trump is insulted because like “Land Grant Downie” he does not come from the elite world of journalists. That is, Trump grew up wealthy, but since he was from Queens and worked in real estate and the hospitality industry, he always understood the private sector and empathized with and appealed to workers – the same workers who supported him a million times over.
Whatever the reason, the media followed the marching orders. In July 2016, the Post published an article by Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University, who argued that Donald Trump required journalists to change tactics.
Trump doesn’t act like a normal candidate. he behaves like an unbound. In response, journalists themselves need to become less predictable. You have to come up with new answers. They have to do things that they never did. They may even have to shock us … they may have to call Trump with an unprecedented force … they have to explain to the public that Trump is a special case and the normal rules don’t apply.
Dismissing the normal rules means creating tantrums, ignoring sources that contradict the facts, and indulging in the fiction that the Russians worked with the Trump campaign to sway the outcome of the 2016 election. (Full disclosure: I have some personal experience with the poor reporting at the Post). As Andrew McCarthy reported, John Ratcliffe, director of the National Intelligence Service (DNI), has released and published information showing that McCarthy’s phrase, “Mrs. Clinton agreed to her campaign advisors’ proposal that Moscow’s hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails was due to a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. “As it would come as no surprise to Leonard Downie, the Clintons were trying to divert the heat from their own seedy businesses to others. And it worked. Part of the Mueller investigation into Russia involved a story published in the Washington Post in July 2016. The headline: “Trump Campaign Affects GOP’s Anti-Russian Attitude in Ukraine.” As Byron York points out (and detailed in his book Obsession), the story was totally wrong – “not just wrong, it was 180 degrees wrong”. The Post then reported that Russian hackers had infiltrated the U.S. power grid from a Vermont power grid, an absurd story that was completely false.
At the end of All About the Story, Downie recalls what Jeff Bezos had told all employees when they bought the paper in 2013 to think about what “the next golden age of the Washington Post would be.” It would never come. Downie became a professor. He also wrote a searing report, “The Obama Administration and the Press,” condemning the Obama administration for its false transparency. “The problem is, what they make transparent is good for the administration’s image,” Downie said. “In some cases, information is provided about things that journalists are excluded from, so you only get the government’s opinion.” In the Biden administration, as in the Obama administration, the government and fourth estate views are likely to be one and the same. “Land Grant Downie” got off just in time.