Lifetime Post: The Leonard Downie Jr. Papers 

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!” Tom Hank’s Ben Bradlee periodically gripes as he wonders aloud 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 Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr., at that 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.  “I like the idea of having [Ben] Bagdikian alert Ben to his concern about Sheehan not writing for a while, but it needs to include for the audience some idea of why that would matter…”[1]

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 under the film’s title, but given the secret code name “Noreaster,” he offered numerous other insights as well.[2] 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 Kay Graham’s role as tipster for Bradlee and himself.[3]

Katherine Graham seated at desk, smiling with hands clasped

Katherine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, half-length portrait, seated at desk. Photograph by Marion S. Trikosko, April 7, 1976. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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 an inside perch on the Washington Post’s inner workings.

In a way, Downie’s role as film consultant illustrates his larger career at the newspaper. Starting as an intern during the 1960s, Downie worked his way up the Washington 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), and managing editor (1984-1991), finally ascending to executive editor and serving in that role for nearly two decades (1991-2008). He could attest to the on-the-ground newsroom grind of 1971 while also commenting on the film from the point of view of the executive editor, with both perspectives derived from personal experience. The Post won its share of Pulitzers during Downie’s tenure, taking six of fourteen prizes in journalism in 2007 alone, only the fourth time a newspaper emerged with more than three Pulitzer Prizes in a single year.[4] Though he retired from the newspaper in 2008, Downie continues to work in the field, not only as a film consultant but with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Columbia Journalism School as well.

As noted, 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 for 43 years, and 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 former Post editor, Downie offered his own 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.”[5]

Press credential with Downie's photo at left, signature in middle, "The Washington Post" at bottom

Leonard Downie Jr., Washington Post press credential, 1987. Box 6, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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 Post.

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 adding “what would it be like if our stated goal was simply to be the best daily period?”[6]

Downie’s executive editor files often dovetail with and frequently reference Pugwash while also mapping the newspaper’s course from 1991 to 2008. 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 (AME) 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.[7] According to a 2005 Downie memo, the seed planted at the 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. “This newsroom is stronger than ever,” Downie wrote.[8]

In moments, the collection offers a taste of what might have been. In 1987, Dinesh D’Souza then a Reagan White House advisor, contacted Don Graham regarding his “chances” at a paper like the Post, an inquiry Graham took seriously. “This is a very smart guy. It would be well worth your time to talk with him, even though he is a doubtful hire for us right now,” he wrote in a memorandum to Downie and Meg Greenfield.[9] Downie balked at the idea, noting his worry that on the news gathering side, D’Souza’s work would prove too partisan and ideological.[10]

Researchers will also find correspondence and other materials featuring Katharine Graham, Donald Graham, Ben Bradlee, Robert Kaiser, Meg Greenfield, Bob Woodward and other Post luminaries as well as coverage of events such as Watergate, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the Valerie Plame Affair, September 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.”[11] A lifetime at one of the nation’s most influential newspapers is laid out in the Leonard Downie Jr. Papers.

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[1] Leonard Downie Jr., Noreaster notes, May 11, 2017, Box 6, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Leonard Downie Jr., All About the Story: News, Power, Politics, and the Washington Post (New York: Public Affairs, 2020), 353-354.

[3] Leonard Downie Jr., Noreaster notes, May 11, 2017, Box 6, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Downie Jr., All About the Story, 325-326.

[5] Robert Kaiser to Leonard Downie Jr., email, August 22, 2002, Box 2, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Michael Getler to Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser, May 11, 1994, Box 13, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Leonard Downie Jr., memorandum, May 6, 1993, Box 9, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] Leonard Downie Jr., September 25, 2005, Box 9, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; Downie added that in terms of non-white journalists, 23.3 percent or 151 of the newsrooms 647 “full-time professional staff members” were persons of color. He did not offer specific figures regarding women.

[9] Donald Graham, Memorandum to Meg Greenfield and Leonard Downie, September 1, 1987, Box 2, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] Leonard Downie Jr. to Donald Graham, September 1, 1987, Box 2, Leonard Downie Jr. Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11] Downie Jr., All About the Story, 327.