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Q & A with the Washington Post's Executive Editor Leonard Downie - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Q) Does ‘The Washington Post,’ take national security into consideration before publishing leaks?

A) Whenever government officials raise questions about a story and the possibility that its publication might harm national security or harm human lives, we listen carefully and take the matter very seriously. We hold a meeting or a series of meetings with these officials to hear what they have to say and we ask questions, review the article and make a careful determination about what to do or what not to do.

Some people think we publish everything that our reporters obtain regarding national security, but the fact is that sometimes, when the government asks us, we will omit locations, minor technical information and other details that we feel our readers do not need to know.

Q) Does the newspaper check with more than one source when it receives leaked information?

A) We always check and recheck, but we seldom publish a story based on unsolicited sources. We do not publish everything that is handed to us and we are not given information on a silver platter. Our reporters are highly qualified and they usually work for long periods on their stories and check with multiple sources. For example, Dana Priest’s article on the CIA secret jails took a number of months to write and gradually, the story began to take shape. It was not the case that she just met a government official who gave her all the information. Furthermore, there is no government official who has all the information we need to write a full and balanced story.

Q) Do important government officials pressure you not to include certain aspects in publications?

A) I would not call it pressure but rather them presenting their concerns to us and we discuss these aspects, however that is what the government and the press usually do. According to our constitution, we are free to decide what to publish and what not to publish.

Q) The editorials in The New York Times have been against the Iraq War from the beginning whereas The Washington Post’s editorials have supported the war. What is your comment on this?

A) Do not ask me about the newspaper’s editorials, as I have nothing to do with them. Actually, I do not even read them very often. There is a wall that separates news from editorials. In the newsroom, we do not tell the opinion writers what to write and they do not tell us what news items to publish. It is completely separate.

Q) The Washington Times assigns more pages to opinion articles than your paper.

A) I do not even read the editorials of the Washington Times. We actually do not compete with that paper. The only matter is sometimes that paper publishes government news that it has received from its conservative sources in the government. However, the daily circulation of that paper is one-seventh of ours, and their weekend circulation is one-twenty-fifth of ours.

Q) A recent cover story featured in The Economist addressed the problems that newspapers are facing today and referred to the possible disappearance of newspapers by 2042. What is your opinion of this?

A) I will be 99 years-old in 2042, and I believe newspapers will still be around. Since Guttenberg invented the press in the fifteenth century, newspapers, magazines and books have existed despite the scientific and technological changes, and even after the invention of radio and television. Now, in this age of the internet, there are still newspapers, and there will always be newspapers. It is true that in America, the newspapers of some cities have collapsed, but, on the other hand, there are more suburban and community newspapers.

Q) Is the internet the reason that The Washington Post, over the last few years, has increased its level of entertainment news in comparison to political news?

A) We have increased both our hard news and what you call entertainment news. Actually because of the internet, we are publishing more stories on a variety of subjects and we are finding more sources and information online. Also, because of the internet and our website, we have a bigger audience with fewer investments.

Q) Is The Express (a free Washington Post publication distributed at bus stops and subway stations) competition for The Post?

A) The Express has a different audience. It is for people who are in a hurry, people who do not usually buy the newspaper or do not usually read it. However, there is an overlap. There are people who read The Express on the subway, read our website at the office, the newspaper at lunch and maybe the website again in the evenings. You cannot imagine the number of news junkies in this very political city.

Q) The Post is accused of focusing less on events in the Muslim and Arab worlds, of bias towards Israel and of not having Muslim and Arab reporters. What is your response to this?

A) Arab and Muslim countries have become more of a focus of our news coverage than ever before. Actually, these countries receive largely disproportional coverage. As for being bias, The Washington Post is not pro-Israel or pro-Arab. The point is that this is a very emotional issue for the two sides, and each group says that we are biased against them because we do not take sides. Each side believes a balanced position is when we support their position.

Q) Are there any Muslims or Arabs amongst the staff at The Washington Post?

A) I do not know the religious affiliations of our staff, and I do not ask about this. We have Muslims, Christians, Jews, people from other religions and people who do not have a religion.

Q) It has been argued that The New York Times is more interested in Muslim and Arab issues than The Washington Post, and has more correspondents and free-lancers in the relevant countries. What is your response to this?

A) We have recently increased the number of our reporters and free-lancers [in Arab and Muslim countries]. We have major bureaus in Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem and other places. The New York Times is bigger than The Washington Post, has a larger budget and more staff. Perhaps these are the reasons.

Q) The Washington Post recently published an article on the Harvard University professors who wrote a paper that criticized the largely disproportional influence of the Israeli lobby in Washington. If this lobby is powerful enough to influence Congress and the White House, is it not powerful enough to influence The Washington Post?

A) Nobody can influence The Washington Post, whether an Israeli lobby or the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR). There are a lot of people who would like to influence our paper. We usually listen to all of them because that is part of our job and because we want our coverage to be fair and balanced and to reflect different points of view. We do pay attention to everybody and to the responses to criticism from everyone, but we are not influenced by anyone.

Q) You talked about separation between editorial and news, is there separation between editorial and news on one side and the administration on the other?

A) I am not a member of the board of directors. I attend meetings about how to run the newspaper but they do not influence what we write.

Q) Have you ever been told to write a certain article?

A) Never.

Q) Are you a hands on or hand off boss?

A) Some of my staff may say that I am too much in control. We have many senior editors to whom I usually delegate powers, and I usually run the paper three days a week that is when I attend meetings and decide what will go on the front page.

Q) What are the advantages and disadvantages of your job?

A) First of all, I love journalism. I love working with the wonderful staff that we have. I feel like I am the conductor of the world’s greatest orchestra. This is the most important newspaper in the most important capital of the world. Our work is becoming more interesting and important because we pay a significant amount of attention to accountability not only regarding government, but also business and society, in the US and in other countries.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work. I work long hours at the office and sometimes at home but that is not a problem as I am not sociable person and do not have to spend a lot of time carrying out social obligations.

Q) Does that not affect your family life?

A) Not as much as it used to as my children are grown up now.

Q) Did you dream of becoming a journalist when you were younger?

A) I was eleven years-old when I first wrote in a school newspaper at my elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio. In the first year, I was a reporter and in the second year, I was promoted to editor-in-chief. It was a long time ago that I fell in love with journalism and decided that I wanted to be journalist. After college, I joined The Post. I enjoyed being a reporter and I love being a boss. I worked in many sections and at different levels in The Post and was involved in the Watergate coverage.

Q) What are your plans for the future?

A) I do not know how long I will be at this job. I am 64-years-old, but there is no mandatory retirement age at The Post. I will continue working with my colleagues to issue a wonderful newspaper every morning. I will also work to expand our multi-media platform, investigative reporting, accountability pieces and other projects. There are many challenges here that will keep me busy until I leave this office.

Q) Have any of your children followed in your footsteps?

A) I have four children and two step-children and not one of them became a journalist. That may be due to the fact that I spent a lot of time working for the paper and not much time with them.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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