Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. gave more than 50 students an inside look at one of the nation’s largest newspapers Tuesday night.
His speech in the Marvin Dorothy Betts Theatre centered on how Sept 11 affected newsrooms across the country, the inner workings of The Post and where he thinks the news industry is headed.
“American journalism is at a crossroads,” said Downie, who signed copies of his latest book, The News about the News, after the speech. “The best news coverage was exemplified by the coverage of the September 11 attacks, but too much news today is untrustworthy, misleading and irresponsible.”
Downie said covering the attacks was an unprecedented experience for him and the rest of the Post staff.
He said reporters went to great lengths to cover the Pentagon attack, including “climbing tall fences, abandoning cars on the highway and sneaking past security.”
The Post sold more than a million copies on Sept. 12, about 200,000 more than normal circulation for a weekday, Downie said.
In the ensuing days, The Post sent correspondents from New Delhi, Moscow, Paris and Beijing to cover Afghanistan. He said there are currently 26 Post correspondents around the world, including three in Afghanistan.
Even on normal days, Downie said his role at The Post “is essentially a daily exercise in crisis management” and that “the deadlines are unyielding.”
He said the first edition of The Post must be ready for printing at 10:45 p.m., and the final edition closes at 2 a.m.
Downie said the “extraordinary camaraderie” of the staff, along with a management structure “lacking the constraints of rigid hierarchy” help to make The Post a success.
He noted that The Post was the first news organization to report that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“We tell our readers much about the war that they otherwise would not know,” Downie said.
He said upcoming Post stories include coverage on how the United States paid anti-Taliban Afghans to do most of the ground fighting, failures to find bin Laden and Afghan casualties in attacks not acknowledged by the Pentagon
Downie criticized other newspapers for shrinking their staffs to earn profits and neglecting to report on more state, government and national news after Sept. 11.
He also criticized local TV stations, which he compared to sheep, adding that they provide only 12 original news stories each day and often use newspapers as news sources.
Downie said “strong leadership in newsrooms” and more “fair, non-offensive, accurate reporting” is needed to ensure the integrity of news organizations.
Students gave positive reviews of Downie’s speech, sponsored by the L.E.A.D. Center and the School of Media and Public Affairs
“As a native of the D.C. area, it was really interesting to see how The Post covered the Sept. 11 attacks,” said freshman David Grossman, who said his HOVA Press Room living and learning community encouraged him to attend.
“I have nothing to do with journalism, but it was still interesting to get an insider’s view,” junior Mike DiSabatino said.