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Showcase: Watergate, WMD and the future of news

By Roy Harris

With his first words, Bob Woodward signaled the blunt, no-nonsense tone of "Accountability Reporting and Digging Deep," the 2009 IRE Conference showcase panel with Woodward and Leonard Downie Jr.

Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward

Leonard Downie Jr.

Leonard Downie Jr.

Downie-- the longtime executive editor at The Washington Post, now headed for Arizona State University--had begun the discussion by describing the 37-year reporter-editor relationship started during the Post's 1972 Watergate coverage, and by welcoming the rare chance to appear with his most famous reporter before a group of journalists. (Downie was elected to the IRE Board of Directors later during the conference.)

Then came Woodward's turn. "Let's start talking about a f––k-up," he said: "Why we didn't get to the bottom of why (there were) no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

The sad story of that newsroom failure — and the lessons learned from it — kicked off an hour of free-form interplay, exposing the IRE audience to some high-level speculation about the future of news. But it also took them all the way back to, yes, Watergate. The discussion focused on how reporters and editors must work together as never before, now that industry business models are imploding and public trust in the press is eroding.

Woodward points to missed opportunities in the Post's newsroom communications during the nation's post-9/11 buildup to the war. Fellow Post reporter Walter Pincus had written one skeptical story questioning the evidence of WMD widely being cited, and it "ran on A-27," Woodward said. Then, "I actually drafted a story that was much harder," but that also got short shrift, to his chagrin at the time. He often had taken advantage of Downie's open-door policy, welcoming reporters who had questions about the paper's coverage. But, Woodward lamented, "I didn't do that this time."

Without a smoking gun for WMD in 2001, U.S. intelligence relied instead on "soft evidence," Woodward said. "Obviously, when you're going to war you want the evidence to be hard." Had Post reporters gotten together with Downie "to figure out what questions aren't answered," though, the editor "would have said, 'Get on that; let's mobilize.' We failed to mobilize on that." And, in Woodward's appraisal, "my aggressiveness failed."

Downie responded by citing the complexity of the story judgments that were required to weed out all the inaccurate reports emerging in the days following the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein made the Bush administration's WMD claims appear valid. "Saddam wanted us to believe that, if you recall," Downie said, noting that it had been an Iraqi strategy for fending off invasion.

Of course, Downie too is haunted that a newsroom breakdown might have contributed to the Post's missing a great story — and the WMD myth spreading. Even while aware that Woodward and Pincus were "surfacing some doubters," he said, "I didn't put a single one of those stories on page one." He added: "The lesson for editors in this room is to always have your antenna up as high as possible." For reporters, the lesson is to "stay in the face of your editors."

Turning to the topic of the future of news, Downie is encouraged that both the mainstream media and online alternatives are "learning that credibility is all" —even if many of the new outlets, especially, seem to be gushing unsubstantiated opinion. Thus, he sees the rise of unreliable faux-news Internet outlets as something of "a self-correcting problem." Even the worst of them gradually "are going to move toward the impartial center."

Questions about the media's future now are a special area of study for Downie because of his role in a deep Columbia University investigation of alternatives for news production —an investigation tackling such controversial possibilities as aid from nonprofit organizations, a public-policy role for the government, and relaxation of antitrust rules to allow newspapers to achieve nonprofit status more easily.

The Washington Post duo drew a crowd

The Washington Post duo drew a crowd

Downie spoke of today's news business overall as having emerged from a long period of being dominated by giant, powerful entities that subsidized their editorial content with high advertising profits. Often, excellent journalism resulted from such a well-funded system. But "it was a unique golden era and it's over," Downie said.

In this new period of "creative destruction," he said, much of the damage unfortunately falls on middle-aged journalists. Illustrating the fallout is the fact that some 700 reporters recently applied for a proposed investigative unit at the online Huffington Post.

Still, Downie emphasized, amid the explosion of new operations online and elsewhere "I am optimistic that there are going to be incubators for things to come."

Will that future involve online readers paying for news? Woodward tossed the question to the audience, bringing a decidedly mixed response. Downie, though, noted a demographic split among the responders: Younger people thought no, while older attendees believed that paying for Internet news was still possible.

The former executive editor noted two types of investigation that journalism needs to protect in the future. Books, such as the four written by Woodward on the Bush administration, win readers for the Post, Downie said, even if the author role cuts into the author's normal daily reporting time.

The other type is from reporters who "chip away on a beat," as Post staffer Dana Priest did in pursuing stories with Anne Hull on the horrific abuses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and James Grimaldi did in pursuing improprieties at the Smithsonian Institution.

"This is a concern of mine going forward," Downie said. "Will that beat reporting still exist" as more coverage shifts to Internet-based staffs? Such a deterioration of beat coverage could be the most serious blow of all to journalism quality. (Are bloggers journalists, in Downie's definition? Yes, because a journalist is simply "someone who commits journalism.")

In answer to a question about newspaper leadership, Downie presented today's challenge in near-cosmic terms: "We're not talking about the survival of newspapers; we're talking about the survival of news."

Woodward closed by recalling late publisher Katharine Graham's extraordinary leadership in earlier dark times. Graham met at a luncheon with Woodward at a time in 1972 when what Woodward and partner Carl Bernstein were writing about Watergate "was not being believed — even by our colleagues." (Put more bluntly, he said, "Journalistically, The Washington Post's reputation was in the toilet." And the Nixon administration was seen as preparing to challenge its television licenses, putting the stock "at least on the rim of the toilet.")

Graham, however, illustrated what Woodward called a "mind-on, hands-off" view of ownership by peppering him with questions about the coverage, and then asking a "killer question: 'When are we going to find out the whole truth about Watergate?'"

After picking his blown mind off the floor, the reporter answered that "the real answer was never." With "a pained look on her face," Graham responded, "Never? Don't tell me never."

Woodward said he "left the lunch a motivated employee." She was really telling him, "Use all the resources of this paper to get to the bottom of this story." Added Woodward, "Someday we're going to put a plaque in the lobby: 'Never? Don't tell me never.' — Katharine Graham, 1972."

Roy Harris, a Boston-based member attending his first IRE conference, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (University of Missouri, 2008.

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