Former executive editor of The Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., spoke at a conversation titled “The Role of News in Our Democracy” on Wednesday, Oct. 28. The Zoom event was moderated by politics professor Aaron Weinstein, Ph. D and English professor Lei Xie, Ph. D.
“Mr. Downie has decades of experience to inform his take on the role of media in our politics today,” noted Weinstein. “He has seen and participated in evolutions within journalism.”
The shift to digital media, the emergence of 24/7 news cycles and the rise of social media are some of the specific evolutions that Weistein referenced.
Downie, who Xie called “one of the most revered news editors in the country,” certainly highlighted these changes.
In his 44 years at The Washington Post, Downie handled public demands from the Unabomber, dedicated years to investigating the Watergate scandal and helped trailblaze news media’s coverage of HIV/AIDS. His aggressive journalism posited him in notable places, amongst prominent figures discussing momentous matters.
“If we had published the names of those countries, I was convinced some of them would fall and other cooperation would cease” said Downie, referring to a report about secret prisons in eastern Europe during George W. Bush’s presidency. His investigation for this story brought Downie into the Oval Office, but his eventually publicized story still garnered Downie great backlash both for being cowardly and for jeopardizing national security.
“The news media was never popular,” he remarked. Though, this unpopularity does not stop Downie from trying to highlight the “essential role of the news media at a time when it’s being questioned.” He doesn’t think that polls displaying the news media’s decreasing popularity truly represent journalism’s current condition.
“I believe the best journalism today is better than ever,” he declared. “Stories can be told much more vividly and reach much more of an audience.”
Downie noted how current social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have been made possible because of modern, aggressive journalism.
One area where journalism has witnessed significant advances is in science.
“A lot of the reporting is much more sophisticated now about evaluating scientific studies, supporting findings or just presenting the reader as many facts as possible,” said Downie.
Despite a firm disbelief of objectivity in journalism, Downie made one exception.
“Here’s a message to Donald Trump: Science can be objective,” he stressed, citing the current pandemic as a reason to accept this fact now more than ever.
Downie’s condemning of Trump’s behavior towards the news media extended into criticism of his voters that echo these ideas and his supportive pundits whose reporting lacks journalistic legitimacy. In support of the First Amendment, Downie explained that aggressive journalism depends on this ability to freely search for the truth in the face of wrathful opposition, but to hold leaders of the utmost power accountable.
“I was just as aggressive with Democrats as I was with Republicans,” stated Downie. “The government cannot decide what should and should not be broadcasted.”
This focus on both the importance of the First Amendment as well as non-partisanship underlies Downie’s entire career’s work. Part of his dedication to non-partisanship appeared through his decision to not vote in any election during his incumbency as executive editor.
“Our aggressive coverage looks like liberal coverage to conservatives, and I wanted to make that clear that I was non-partisan,” said Downie. “I never regretted not voting at all.”
This hour-long discussion of journalistic principles and the rigor they require gave the audience an enlightening commentary from one of the field’s most quintessential figures. Besides sharing the secrets to maintaining such excellence and integrity, Downie also reflected on fascinating stories such as the hectic Presidential Election of 2000.
Unlike that election, for this year’s presidential race, news media outlets are much more prepared for mayhem. The irregularities of 2000 still cause Downie to question who really won the election, but he observes that intimidation, tampering and all other aspects of voting are receiving much more intense coverage this year.
Fairfield’s organizers of the event, the project team of the Davis Educational Foundation grant “Civil Education through the Promise of Democracy,” hoped that the audience would leave the night with insights about leading a prominent news team and engaging with social issues, but also with insights about elections. This focus on following news coverage of the election remained a theme accentuated by Downie throughout this conversation.
As a man who dedicated his career to giving a voice to the voiceless, informing the public and unearthing factual truths, Downie’s denouncement of objectivity may seem unusual. However, at a time when political polarization surges, his explanation of this creed remains as relevant as ever.
“You must be fair to everybody and show that you are searching for the truth,” said Downie. “We will still turn to the mainstream media for accurate facts, so the media still needs to be that.”