This is a guest post by Ryan Reft in the Manuscript Division. It has been slightly adapted from its original publication last week on the “Unfolding History” blog.
Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film “The Post” depicts The Washington Post’s efforts to publish its account of the Pentagon Papers, but if you’ve only seen the movie’s first 40 minutes you might think it’s about New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan. “Sheehan!” Post executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) gripes as he wonders about the reporter’s activities. Sheehan came to prominence covering the Vietnam War and in 1971 he broke the Pentagon Papers story, the epic, constitutionally challenging scoop that drives the film’s plot.
Former Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., at the time a reporter for the newspaper, had his doubts about the movie’s depiction of Bradlee’s Sheehan obsession. “I have a hard time believing Ben paid attention to what Sheehan was doing,” he wrote to the movie’s producers.
Having been brought on as a consultant to the film, Downie praised “The Post” as one of “the most realistic and meaningful screen depictions of the importance of newspaper journalism” and placed it among classics such as “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.” In his notes, which can be found in the Manuscript Division’s recently acquired Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, he offered numerous other insights.
Some were mundane but important for authenticity, such as when he pointed out that the Post had no garage at the time, so the newspaper’s publisher Katharine Graham had to be dropped off in front of the old building on L Street. Others proved more revealing. Downie noted the movie’s accuracy in capturing Graham’s role as tipster for Bradlee and himself.
Downie’s consultancy provides a useful entry point into a collection that spans decades at one of the nation’s most august newspapers. His papers, which recently opened in the Manuscript Division, provide not only an overview of Downie’s career but also as a perch on the Post’s inner workings.
Starting as an intern during the 1960s, Downie worked his way up the Post food chain, including stops as deputy (1972-1974) and assistant managing editor (1974-1979) for the Metro desk, foreign correspondent in London (1979-1982), national editor (1982-1984), managing editor (1984-1991) and then as executive editor (1991-2008).
The Post won its share of Pulitzers during Downie’s leadership, taking six of the fourteen prizes in journalism in 2007, only the fourth time a newspaper emerged with more than three Pulitzer Prizes in a single year. Though he retired from the newspaper in 2008, Downie continues to work in the field, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and at Arizona State University to name just two.
Downie’s work consulting on “The Post” serves as just one dot in his collection’s pointillist rendition of journalistic history, which is full of strong characters and personalities. Downie succeeded legendary editor Ben Bradlee. Together they stewarded the Post’s rise to national prominence. The Downie papers do not lack for vantage points from which to witness Bradlee’s combative dynamism.
In an email to Robert Kaiser, a fellow Post editor, Downie offered his perspective on Bradlee’s tenure, correcting a popular memory that envisioned him roaming the newsroom and regularly engaging reporters.
In reality, he suggests, the famed editor sought out “those journalists he knew best and liked to talk to.” Still, his “aura” pervaded the newsroom, and he stood by his reporters’ stories. Downie recalled his 1960s series on the scandals in the savings and loan industry which cost the newspaper hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising when local S&L institutions boycotted the paper over his reporting. Bradlee, aware of the financial costs of Downie’s reporting, simply told him to “get it right kid.”
While Bradlee vigorously supported the newspaper’s journalists, the inspiration one drew from his praise could also curdle. “His turning his back on you when you failed was devastating,” Downie recalled. As for his “personal touch,” it could sometimes be described as “favortism” (sic), and often left Bradlee blindsided when women and non-white reporters complained about inequality at the paper.
For researchers interested in the newspaper’s internal dynamics, the collection offers a unique window. The Pugwash Files, named after the newspaper’s annual retreat, includes a number of publisher Don Graham’s annual state of the newspaper addresses. At the retreat, editors and journalists bounced around ideas for the newspaper’s direction in the coming years and discussed pressing internal issues.
Following the 1994 Pugwash, deputy managing editor and future ombudsman Michael Getler wrestled with the direction of the paper’s competitors. Should the Post run fewer series and investigative projects like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the two papers he identified as focusing on simply being the “best daily paper?” “The Washington Post, however, wants to do it all and does a very good job at trying,” observed Getler.
At its 1993 retreat, attendees made clear that the newspaper needed to do better in regard to diversity. Characterizing the 1993 Pugwash meeting with its associate managing editors as “extraordinarily productive,” Downie recounted a survey of the newspaper’s journalists that credited the newspaper with diversifying the newsroom generally, but asserted that greater strides needed to be made: “You said the least progress has been made in the promotion of women and minorities into high level editing jobs.”
As result, the Post organized a task force chaired by Getler to address the issue. According to a 2005 Downie memo, the seed planted at that 1993 Pugwash had begun to sprout. The numbers of women and persons of color working in the newsroom had reached all-time highs for the Post that year, with minorities at 23 percent. “This newsroom is stronger than ever,” he wrote.
Researchers will also find correspondence and other materials featuring coverage of events such as Watergate, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the Valerie Plame affair, 9/11, the Unabomber and much more.
“Journalism, the old adage goes, should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Downie wrote in his 2020 memoir, “All About the Story.” “This is just what the Post did during my leadership of the newsroom.” A lifetime at one of the nation’s most influential newspapers is laid out in the Leonard Downie Jr. Papers.