It’s been Len Downie Week (as I’ve been calling it) at the Cronkite School — especially for the grad students. And it’s gotten me thinking.
Len Downie is the former executive editor of the Washington Post and he is a serious big shot in the journalism (and political) worlds. He edited Woodward and Bernstein during Watergate; he guessed the name of Deep Throat on the Third try; he oversaw the coverage of every Presidential election of the last 17 years; he was in charge when Dana Priest broke the story on Walter Reed. There’s more.
This week, we got to hear from Len Downie on Monday morning in Tim McGuire’s class on the future of media, we had lunch with him (and the entire Cronkite faculty) later that day, we covered his speech that night in the First Amendment Forum, we got to ask him one-on-one questions in our skills class on Wednesday morning and we heard from him one last time — about Watergate! — on Wednesday night when he introduced a showing of “All the President’s Men.” Whew.
What was amazing about this week was not just the record of this editor, or all of the President’s he’s talked to or the ground-breaking pieces he’s overseen — it’s also the difference between everything he represents about journalism and everything we, the grad students, have ever experienced of it.
This is a man who famously stopped registering to vote (and stopped having political views, he said) the day he became editor of the Post. He literally didn’t vote for 17 years. We all had trouble removing our political views from facebook. (That reminds me, I need to do that.)
The generation gap is not just because of age, I don’t think. I think it’s also about the way we think about journalism. If we all write for ourselves (like I’m doing now), who’s going to keep us honest, unbiased journalists?
Funny I should ask that of you, because I actually asked that of Mr. Downie Wednesday. His answer was absolutely amazing — though it made perfect sense and shocked no one in the room. He said that the public simply wouldn’t buy it if we were trying to pass off our opinions as fact; he said that credibility will still matter — even in a world where information flows freely (literally) and there are no rules.
Amazing. Optimism after a career in Washington. Optimism in the face of what most people think is the great decline of journalism.
One thing they must be forgetting, those Debbie Downers, is that there’s a difference between newspapers (which are certainly declining quickly) and journalism.
I’m going to go remove my political views from facebook now.