Taking Their Questions  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2005

Taking Their Questions   

The Posts executive editor goes online to discuss the Bob Woodward uproar.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Props to Len Downie.

Less than three days after the Bob Woodward bombshell exploded, the Washington Post executive editor spent more than an hour taking questions from readers in an online chat.

That's exactly the right thing to do.

When things go wrong, there's an understandable urge to duck questions, to hunker down and hope it will all go away.

That's the wrong approach for anyone. But it's particularly bad and hypocritical for a news organization.

Time after time news outlets have dug themselves into deeper and deeper trouble by staying mum for too long or firing back from the defensive crouch. The New York Times in the Judith Miller saga was exhibit A. CBS in the National Guard documents debacle was exhibit B.

Talleyrand once said of something that it was not only a disgrace, it was a mistake. In this case openness is not only right, it's smart.

As Downie's first questioner wrote, "Going online like this is a very stand-up thing to do. I wish more people in powerful positions stepped up like you are doing here."

That openness comes as no surprise. To his credit, Downie has never been known to duck an interview. We've called him countless times during the 14 years I've edited AJR. And he has always taken the calls, no matter how uncomfortable the situation. I can't say that about every top editor.

Not that the Post's main man broke a lot of new ground in his online appearance. He forthrightly criticized Woodward for two things: not informing him of the fact that a Bush administration official had told Woodward nearly two-and-a-half years ago that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA; and going on television to badmouth Special Prosecutor Patrick "Junkyard Dog" Fitzgerald and his investigation.

But questioners trying to move Downie beyond that didn't have much luck. He was on message. He had his story and was sticking to it.

So there were no big revelations. And Woodward critics looking for the reporting icon's scalp were no doubt sorely disappointed. Downie said, no, Woodward shouldn't leave the paper. And he urged that his big mistake be put in the context of Woodward's illustrious and lengthy career.

It was vintage Downie, direct and to the point. No ruffles and flourishes. With Downie you get three yards and a cloud of dust. The double reverses and flea-flickers, not so much. (Full disclosure: I worked closely with Downie from 1984 to 1987, when I was deputy metro editor at the Post, and he was the paper's managing editor.)

Downie says that Woodward assures him that he will do a much better job of keeping his bosses posted on what's up. Let's hope so. Because make no mistake, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Woodward's status as both bestselling, completely-plugged-in, hardest-working-man-in-show-business author (and celebrity), and Post assistant managing editor and reporter, needed to be closely regulated. And it obviously wasn't.

One online questioner asked Downie, "What message do you think it sends to your newsroom when there is one set of rules for 'stars' and another for the worker bees?"

The editor replied, "There is only one of set of rules for everyone working in our newsroom."

Maybe he's technically correct. The difference is that not everyone has to follow them. Because make no mistake, the star system so much at the heart of the Judy Miller episode is exactly what backfired on the Post here.

Leaked comments on an internal Post message board and unnamed sniping in a piece by the Washingtonian's Harry Jaffe make clear there's no shortage of concern at the paper about Woodward's special status. Reining him in is crucial if this relationship is to be saved.

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