A Conversation with Leonard Downie, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, authors of The News About the News
Q: What are the components of good journalism? What makes you both such experts at understanding and identifying that good journalism?
A: Good journalism comes in many forms, but all of it connects people to the world in a compelling way. A great story about a football game can qualify as good journalism as surely as an expose of bribe-taking by the mayor. One common ingredient in revelation: good journalism tells its readers or viewers something they didn't know before. In our opinion, good journalism shows respect for the intelligence of readers and viewers, and doesn't treat them like know-nothings. As for the two of us, you could probably call us self-appointed experts. We've worked together at a great newspaper for nearly 38 years; journalism has been our life. Perhaps it sounds pompous, but we really do care about the fate of good journalism. We wrote this book to help the consumers of news understand how important journalism is, and to encourage them to demand the best.
Q: In your book you lay out the history of newspapers and journalism over the last two centuries. At what point did we enter the "modern age" of journalism as we know it?
A: Yesterday, perhaps? Journalism is changing very quickly, partly because of technology, but also because of economic pressures on news organizations, which are re-shaping many of them right now. In our book we have tried to describe a "modern" journalism that took shape, probably, in the '90s, but as we wrote we were constantly reminded of how quickly the business is changing. The last big change we were able to write about was September 11, a story of enormous importance that transformed the news business, at least temporarily.
Q: Please talk about the difference between chain-owned newspapers and privately-held newspapers like The Washington Post. Isn't your support of private companies a bit elitist?
A: Not sure elitist is the right word, but it does seem to us to be true that family-owned or family-dominated companies put out the best newspapers in America. We argue in the book that this is because a family-controlled company can resist pressures from Wall Street and elsewhere that publicly-held companies seem unable to resist. But it's also related to a sense of responsibility on the part of the owners. The Sulzbergers, who control The New York Times, and the Grahams who control The Washington Post, do seem to have a stronger commitment to public service than do the managers of the biggest newspaper chains.
Q: Will the bottom line-oriented chain papers that eschew values for profit eventually shoot themselves in the foot and lose those beloved profits?
A: We certainly think that's a possibility. Papers whose owners keep shrinking their news staffs and the space devoted to news make those papers continually less important to their readers, advertisers and communities. Eventually, all three could rebel most easily by ceasing to take the paper seriously. We expect to see a lot of papers lose a lot of circulation in the next decade, unless their owners wake up and start to improve them instead of making them steadily weaker.
Q: Most people agree that the news media covered the events of September 11 in an admirable way. With all of its built in limitations how did it manage to do this?
A: Coverage of Sept. 11 was very heartening. It showed that in newsrooms all over America, professional journalists could rise to the occasion the biggest news story of our times. We think this is proof that there are still lots of high-quality journalists in America, and that many editors, producers and reporters still know what good journalism is. After this national tragedy, owners and managers gave their journalists great freedom to do their best work. Many knew how to take advantage of that opportunity.
Q: Did the profound effect of the terrorist attacks bring permanent change in how seriously the media takes itself in covering the news?
A: Good question. We're hopeful, but not yet optimistic. It's just too soon to say.
Q: Could the news media have done a better job in covering September 11? What could it have done better?
A: The media can ALWAYS do a better job than they do, even the very best news organizations. This is one of the things that makes ours such a challenging profession. There's an old slogan that sums up the opportunity: "Our best today, better tomorrow." As for September 11, many newspapers, and the major networks, could have done a better job putting the terrorists in the context of the societies from which they come. A lot of news organizations are now really uncomfortable dealing with foreign news, but this was in large measure a foreign news story. We all could have done better piercing the veil of secrecy the government threw up around the investigation at home and the war in Afghanistan.
Q: It is a commonly held view that the media has a liberal bias. Is that perception or reality?
A: What exactly is a liberal bias? The idea that America's journalists are a pack of rabid left-wingers eager to promote big government and undermine traditional family values is just silly; there's no evidence of such group-think. Good journalists look for the weak spots in subjects they cover: presidential administrations, corporations, school boards, the local basketball team. They're skeptical, and they challenge conventional wisdom, and authority too. Is that "liberal?” Some people think it is. We don't. Good journalists like to puncture pretense, expose phoniness, and expose malfeasance. That's our ideology. At the same time, we are concerned that too much opinion is seeping into what is presented as news these days, especially on television, although that opinion is usually divided between liberal and conservative views.
Q: The media is often called the 4th estate, meaning that it is as powerful a force as the three branches of the federal government. Is this true? Or can it be true since even the best journalists will inevitably miss many stories?
A: In our book we argue that it's easy to overstate the power of the news media. Journalists don't make policy; they don't have the power to subpoena witnesses or evidence; they don't have much success telling people how to vote. The media are enormously important. They create the shared experience that constitutes the American culture. But they do this almost unconsciously, certainly not in pursuit of some master plan. The real power of the media lies in its ability to provide Americans with the information they need to lead their lives and govern themselves effectively.
Q: You believe that journalism has a "mission of public service " (p62) which includes exposing corruption, holding politicians accountable for their behavior and more. How far does one go in terms of reporting on say the sex lives of politicians? How does one both protect the privacy of individuals and honor the public trust?
A: Our book contains a detailed account of a big debate inside The Washington Post in 1996 over whether to expose a long-ago love affair of Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for president that year. Len Downie decided we wouldn't do it, after a heated argument within the staff. Most of Len's colleagues, including Bob Kaiser, disagreed with him, for reasons you'll have to read the book to find out. In that episode we all had to wrestle with your question when is a sex story relevant to a politician's career? Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky made it easy, for instance. A president having sex with an intern inside the White House is clearly a news story. But most cases are much more subtle. Our general rule of thumb is, a politician's private life must have some connection to the performance of his public duties before we're ready to write about it.
Q: How can media companies maintain high standards of newsgathering and at the same time make profits for their owners/stockholders?
A: Here's an interesting fact: the best news products are generally very profitable. The New York Times usually makes a lot of money; so does The Wall Street Journal. It's our belief that readers actually respond to quality, and help make it pay. It seems insulting and wrong-headed to us to argue that news has to be sleazy or dumb to appeal to a broad audience.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book? And why now?
A:The News About the News grew out of many years of collaboration between the two of us. In 1998, when Kaiser was preparing to escape from the responsibilities of the managing editorship, he told Downie he wanted to close out his years as an editor by writing a book about what had happened to the news business. Kaiser thought his experiences at the Post, plus his exposure to other news organizations, could be used in a cautionary book that would warn Americans that good journalism was at risk. Downie asked if he could be a co-author. We quickly agreed on a plan. There's no good answer to why now. Indeed, the fact that this book is coming out so soon after the tragedies of September 11, the biggest news story of modern times, is entirely a coincidence, though we have tried to exploit that coincidence in the final version of our book.
Q: What was it like writing the book together?
A: Because Downie remains the editor of the Post, it wasn't easy to make the time needed to produce a book, and it did take us more than two years, but we did it. We are very close friends and colleagues, and can often complete one another's sentences. We grew up together under the great Ben Bradlee, whose values and interests became our own over the quarter-century we worked for him. When it came to writing this book, we did much of the reporting together, but also took trips and interviewed people independently. We did a great deal of reporting for the book, and discovered that we hadn't been as knowledgeable about our business as we had assumed. We divided up the job of drafting the various chapters, then edited and rewrote each other's drafts quite ruthlessly. We had a great time and we're still friends!
Q: You both are at the top of your field. Looking back on what you wanted out of a career in journalism, have you achieved what you sought?
A: And then some. In the summer of 1964, when we first met as freshly-scrubbed summer interns in the old Washington Post newsroom, neither of us would have dared dream of the good fortune we have both enjoyed. The greatest joy of the news business is that they pay you to learn. We have learned more, about more subjects, that we could have thought possible in 1964. The fact that Ben and Katharine and Don Graham would ultimately show so much confidence in us was similarly something we could never have predicted. So it is safe to say that our careers have been much more successful than even our considerable youthful ambitions would have permitted us to foresee.
On the other hand, we can also say that we haven't achieved all we eventually came to dream of and hope for as we found ourselves in positions of responsibility at The Washington Post. Our work, and our newspaper are not as good as they could be, or as we hope they will be next month and next year. This is another joy of the news business--there is always a big gap between the ideal, and the actual. We've watched journalism, and our paper improve dramatically over the last four decades, but there's lots of room for further improvement in the future. One reason we wrote this book was to encourage those improvements.