Is the ‘Washington Post’ a ‘Liberal Newspaper’?

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By: E&P Staff

The popular PBS program “Frontline” aired part two of its four-part series on the media this week. But beyond the snippets of interviews that reach the air, PBS.org has placed the transcripts of more than 50 interviews for the series on the Web site. For the past week E&P has been excerpting from some of the interviews, including those with Bill Keller, Carl Bernstein and William Safire.

Today’s excerpt comes from Len Downie, executive editor at The Washington Post for many years. The interviewer is Lowell Bergman.

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Q. Do you worry about [reporter] Dana Priest being subpoenaed, maybe going to jail?

Yes. She worries about that a lot. She worries about some of her sources going to jail or being subpoenaed or being criminally prosecuted for providing information the public should have. … I worry about Dana Priest and a number of our other reporters who are potential targets of either government subpoenas or civil suit subpoenas. Where people are going to demand that they reveal confidential sources which they’re not going to do. And I worry that the ultimate end of that will be that somebody will have to go to jail. That worries me a lot.

Q. In my 37 years in the business, I don’t remember anything like this going on before. … There’s apparently a couple of squads of FBI agents at the Washington field office; that’s all they’re doing, looking for leaks.

Right. I can’t remember a precedent for this either. …

Q. Today I talked with a source of mine, who said he just got polygraphed.

Yeah, that’s going on all around town. There’re investigations of sources going on all around town, and it’s very, very worrying. It’s not good. It’s not good for the free flow of information to the public, and it’s not good to criminalize sources and reporters who are merely engaged in trying to keep the American public properly informed.

Q. Every person we speak with who would identify themselves as a conservative journalist says: “Bias? If you think we’re biased, look at The Washington Post, that liberal newspaper.”

All I can say is that people just need to read us and then decide whether we’re liberal or not. We’re an independent newspaper. We have a strict separation, between the editorial page — which, last I heard, is a supporter, for instance, of the Iraq war and considered by many liberals to be rather conservative — and our news gathering.

In our news gathering, we seek to be strictly nonpartisan and nonideological. We’re human beings, we make mistakes, but we do not set out to be, nor do I think we are, liberal. And judging from my e-mail traffic in recent years, the left is much more critical, and much more angrily critical, of our coverage than the right has been.

Q. The Pew Foundation did a study, and it said 48 percent of the people that they polled said that the people who decide what’s in the news are out of touch with reality, with their reality. So how do you see yourself as being a representative of the public’s right to know?

We are the access point for the public’s right to know; we enable them to get the information that people ought to have. I’m clearly not a representative of the general public myself, although I’m not an Ivy Leaguer. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I went to a state university in Ohio. I’ve never been part of the Eastern liberal establishment. And I don’t vote; I stopped voting in 1984 because I wanted to be completely nonpartisan and nonideological as the final gatekeeper of what goes in The Washington Post. …

We have very strict rules at the newspaper where members of our staff are not allowed to be in politics of any kind except to vote: They can’t contribute money to candidates; they can’t belong to any organizations that lobby Congress; they can’t participate in demonstrations; they can’t sign petitions.

Q. Because you think your reporters and you are objective?

No. “Objective” is not a good term, because nobody’s objective. We’re all human beings. If I said that the tie that you’re wearing right now was maroon, you might say it’s dark red, and we could both be correct; there’s no objective way of describing the color of your tie.

Instead, there’s a fair way of describing your tie: I cannot say that your tie is full of spots, it is dirty and should have been laundered a long time ago, because that wouldn’t be fair. That wouldn’t be accurate, and it wouldn’t be fair. So we try to be accurate and fair as best we can every day. And we make mistakes, and we correct them the next day.

Q. So if someone says that you are a biased organization, or liberal?

No. … Unbiased and objective are two different things. “Biased” means I would go into editing a story wanting it to come out pro-Democrat or pro-Republican, liberal or conservative, whereas “objective” would mean that I have absolutely an empty mind while editing stories, and that’s not true.

Q., But research polls that are done with readers, with your audience, say that they do perceive bias in elections, in whom you support.

Sure. Well, readers bring bias to their reading of the newspaper and to their watching of the television. The very same article in The Washington Post can draw very strong negative e-mails these days from both the left and the right, because the right want it to come out from their viewpoint; the left want it to come out from their viewpoint. …

Q. Do you see more influence in terms of the Internet, bloggers, in your own coverage?

… The influence is twofold. One is they often come up with tips for us. There are a lot of intelligent people out there either running blogs or contributing to blogs, including experts in various fields, and they may find out something first. The first questions raised about the validity of the memo that CBS news had about President Bush’s service in the National Guard was brought up by a blogger, some guy that was an expert on type. …

The other way in which they have a relationship with the mainstream media is that most blogs link to us all the time. Most blogs are about the coverage in the mainstream media, so as a result they drive a lot of readers to our Web site.

Q. But a lot of the criticism from bloggers originally came from conservative bloggers and conservative commentators on newspapers like The Washington Post, not from liberals.

No, not so much. … On television, cable television and in opinion journals, the voices were stronger on the right. But ever since the blogosphere has been around, for what, two or three years now, the left and right have been equally strong and vocal. …

Q. Do more people read The Washington Post online?

It’s harder to count precisely on the Internet as opposed to selling newspapers, which you can count very precisely. I’d say on a given day, a million and a half to 2 million people read The Washington Post; we sell fewer copies than that, but more than one person reads each copy. On the Internet, … [roughly] 5 million people read us every day on the Internet, but again, you can count page views easier than you can count individual people. …

Q. This movement of The Washington Post online, is The Washington Post going toward convergence? Is that your future?

Oh, we’ve converged. If you came over to our newsroom right now, the first thing you would see is our continuous news desk, where every day we do radio. All of our reporters are on Washington Post Radio, a local radio station that we provide all the content for.

You would see reporters and editors sending news as it breaks to our Internet site, washingtonpost.com. You would see reporters and editors being interviewed on camera for television and the television studio we have, … all of this right in the middle of the newsroom. We are a multimedia newsroom already. …

We own a Spanish-language newspaper in Washington; we own a free tabloid newspaper that’s given away in the subways; we have the printed Washington Post; and we have washingtonpost.com, which has the largest audience of all of our various platforms. …

Q. And how profitable is it?

It is currently profitable, and its advertising revenue is growing. One of the challenges for the businesspeople, obviously, is making sure that you’re able to get advertising on all those platforms, to decide whether or not we’re eventually going to charge subscription prices to washingtonpost.com. In time, all of that will have to be decided. At the moment we’re sufficiently profitable in these many platforms.

Q. You’re not being rescued by Kaplan [the test-prep company that acquired The Washington Post Company in 1984]?

Don Graham, our chairman and CEO, has done a really smart job of diversifying our company as much as possible while staying in the general area of news media and education. Kaplan is a very important part of The Washington Post Company. It’s been very helpful to its overall financial health and probably to its stock price. But if the newspaper were still left alone, we still would make a profit.

Q. Enough of a profit?

Enough is in the eyes of Wall Street. I’m a journalist; one dollar is enough of a profit for me, but probably not for our investors.

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