The Washington Post’s Leonard Downie in the Innocent Time Before Journalists Wanted to be Liked and Followed

Leonard Downie.

From the book All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and The Washington Post, by Leonard Downie, former executive editor of the Post:

As Ben Bradlee had, I insisted on complete nonpartisanship in The Post’s news coverage and noninvolvement of Post journalists in political activity or advocacy of any kind. The newsroom’s Standards and Ethics policy, which I strictly enforced, required our journalists to “avoid active involvement in any partisan causes — politics, community affairs, social action, demonstrations — that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly.” That meant that members of the news staff could not contribute money to candidates, parties or causes; sign petitions; or participate in any of the many protest marches in Washington.

I stopped voting when I became managing editor in 1984, although I did not require other Post journalists to do the same. As the final decision-maker on The Post’s news coverage, I did not want to decide, even privately, who should be president or hold any other public office, or what position to take on policy issues. I wanted my mind to remain open to all sides and possibilities. I believe that my open mind made it easier for me to pursue and direct aggressive reporting that held all kinds of officials and institutions accountable.

In 1989, when I was still managing editor, some Post journalists wanted to participate in a huge march for abortion rights in Washington. I visited the various newsroom staffs to remind them that it would be a violation of our ethics policy. A few marched anyway. Ben and I did not discipline them, but we forbade “those who forgot about this on Sunday” from violating the policy again. Some of the journalists were unhappy, but it was the last time the policy was knowingly violated. I periodically explained in memos to and meetings with the staff how important it was to not compromise the independence and credibility of our news reporting.

At the New York Times, U.S. Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse had participated in the 1989 abortion rights march, in violation of the Times’s similar policy, even though she covered abortion issues at the court. Decades later, in her memoir, “Just a Journalist,” Greenhouse insisted she had a right to march as a private citizen, separate from her role as a journalist. She also acknowledged making monthly donations to Planned Parenthood. I believe that should have disqualified her from continuing to report on the court, although the Times left her on the beat.

Today, especially, with all the accusations of news media bias, it is more important than ever for truth-seeking journalists to avoid all appearances of bias and to let their work speak for itself. It needs to be all about the story.

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Post, is the Washington-based Weil Family professor of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School. This article is excerpted from his book “All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and The Washington Post,” to be published by PublicAffairs this month.

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