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Veteran Journalist Len Downie Jr. Recounts High-Profile Career Moments In New Memoir

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2020 - 2:45pm
Updated: Thursday, October 8, 2020 - 7:36am
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: There's been a constant battle between President [Donald] Trump and many major media outlets since his administration took over in January of 2017 — to the point the president referred to journalists as enemies of the people and reminded many people of the relationship between President [Richard] Nixon and the media at the time of Watergate. Len Downie Jr. has witnessed both situations up close. He was an editor with The Washington Post during Watergate, and he remains connected to media today as an instructor who teaches investigative journalism at ASU from Washington, D.C.. He also has a new memoir called "All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and The Washington Post." And Len Downie is with me to talk about some of the biggest stories he's covered. Len, some have compared how President Trump and President Nixon dealt with the media. How much of that do you see? And does it give you any degree of hope or concern for journalists today?

LEN DOWNIE JR.: It's interesting. We're obviously in a different time now with cable television and the internet and social media and so on, but did the Nixon administration and the president himself attacked The Washington Post a lot, beginning with our — beginning of our investigation in June 1972 of Watergate. And also the Nixon administration went after other reporters about other kinds of coverage of the Vietnam War and so on, and even wiretapped reporters' phones — which I don't know that this administration has done. And I think about half of Americans were probably opposed to what we were doing at the Post until, until the president's resignation. So that's not unusual to have a divided country. But what is unusual this time is the ferocity and the, and the, and the ferocity of the president's attacks on the press and how repeated they are and how much they seemed to gain traction with that part of the population that strongly supports him.

GOLDSTEIN: Just how difficult, just how challenging, just how exciting was it to be right there and in the middle of, of Watergate at a time when certain percentage of the population probably wouldn't have been happy with what you were doing? The president was criticizing your newspaper at every turn.

DOWNIE JR.: So I was one of the editors on Watergate and gradually assumed more and more responsibility so that starting in 1973 with the Senate-Watergate hearings, I supervised all of our Watergate coverage, including Bob and Carl's — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's investigative reporting. It was, it was not exciting that much at the time, initially at all, because we were all alone on the story. There was no, no, no internet, no cable television to, to increase the audience for what we were doing. We were a locally-circulated newspaper, not national. Those of us working on Watergate were on the local news staff, national political reporters at the Post in our own newsroom and throughout the rest of the news media doubted what we were doing were not interested in what we were doing. And it wasn't until late October of 1972 when Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News devoted an unprecedented 18 minutes to a single story —Watergate — and explained to the American people what was going on and held up The Washington Post's front pages to show what, what our reporting was, and that was a very — that was the first time we were excited. We were excited to longer be completely alone. By January, The New York Times was on the story and was the first time — the only time — in my career when I was glad there was competition, when Sy Hersh of The New York Times began breaking his own Watergate stories.

GOLDSTEIN: How much did how that was portrayed and what your team ended up doing — how much did that lead to an entire generation of Americans wanting to be journalists?

DOWNIE JR.: I think it was a turning point. I, the Pentagon — publication of the Pentagon Papers and the opposition to the Vietnam War created the first skepticism about the federal government that had not been present before. And there was no investigative reporting about the federal government. The only investigative reporting went on before that was local, which I did as a young investigative reporter also in the 1960s. But Watergate changed everything. The movie, even though we didn't feel that we were in such a glamorous position as the movie showed, the movie inspired young people all around, all around the country to want to become investigative journalists. It, it goaded news organizations to, to turn to investigative reporting, to hire investigative reporters, to create investigative reporting team.

GOLDSTEIN: Len, why did you want to be a reporter, investigative reporter, journalist?

DOWNIE JR.: My teacher in the fifth grade started a little tiny student newspaper — a mimeographed newspaper. I was a reporter on it in the fifth grade and I was its editor the sixth grade, and I fell in love with journalism. And I was involved in student journalism throughout junior high and high school. And in college at Ohio State University, I was a reporter and then editors at various jobs on the daily newspaper — a 30,000 circulation, five-day-a-week newspaper called The Lantern — and I was sold on it. And as a result of my work there and a connection between the director of that school and an editor at The Washington Post, I became a kind of accidental summer intern at The Washington Post in 1964 and never left.

GOLDSTEIN: We talked a bit about Watergate. Let's jump to another really big story that you covered extensively, and that was from 2000. The, the Bush-Gore recount and all of [that] went into that. That is certainly such a historic time. We could think of the hanging chads. We can think of people with their reading glasses looking closely to see how was this vote actually cast. And, of course, the long legal battle, the Supreme Court decision. How does that fit with the big stories you've covered and what stands out to you about it?

DOWNIE JR.: What stands out to me about that to begin with was Election Night itself, when the networks first called the election for Gore, then they called the election for George W. Bush and we had to make decisions because we were just like, well, a morning newspaper then, even though we had an internet site, too. So we had, we had to decide at 2:30 in the morning what the final edition of The Washington Post was going to say. We literally had plates on the newspaper ready to print newspapers that said that Bush had won the election because that was the last thing we had heard. The reporter involved and the reporter's editor came over to me and said "There's some doubt down there in the Gore camp about whether or not Bush really has won," and that the count in Florida is still going on. My managing editor, Steve Coll — a really smart man — picked up a piece of scrap paper and we wrote down in the margin that either Gore or Bush was a — Gore or Bush was ahead at that moment — I think was Bush — in Florida and how many votes were outstanding. And it was clear that the outcome was, we would go to a recount. And so we immediately changed the story to do a, to say that the election was undecided and there would be a recount in Florida and managed to get those points out. I had called down to the press room, one of the first and only times I ever did that, told them to take those other plates off the press, not print a single newspaper with them on it and put on the new plates with our new story. That was a hair-raising moment that I could never forget. And then began the long slog of figuring out what was going on in Florida. And not only did we cover that for weeks on end, but after the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida, Bush was declared the winner. And we went, we joined a consortium at great expense of news organizations that went down to Florida and went through all the ballots that had been count — recounted in some parts of the state and came up with a new — with our own count. And it showed that Bush still did win by a few hundred votes.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Len Downie. He's former executive editor of the Washington Post. His new book is called "All About the Story: News, Power, Politics and the Washington Post." He also is still a journalism professor at ASU based in D.C. Len, thank you so much for the time. Really great to talk with you.

DOWNIE JR.: Thank you, Steve.

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