From in­side the news­room of ‘The Post’

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Ni­cole Car­roll is ed­i­tor and vice pres­i­dent/news for The Ari­zona Repub­lic and az­cen­ She was re­cently named the Na­tional Press Foun­da­tion Ben­jamin C. Bradlee Ed­i­tor of the Year. Reach her at Ni­cole.Car­roll@ari­zonare­pub­ Fol­low her on Twitte

It was 1971. Amer­i­can com­bat troops had been in Viet­nam for six years. More than 50,000 U.S. sol­diers had al­ready died. And a mil­i­tary an­a­lyst leaked a top-se­cret study, in­for­mally called the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, that showed the gov­ern­ment had lied about U.S. in­volve­ment in the con­flict.

The New York Times broke the story. Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s Jus­tice De­part­ment sued to stop them from fur­ther pub­li­ca­tion. The Wash­ing­ton Post, at great risk, then pub­lished its own story about the pa­pers. Len Downie was there for it all. Downie worked for Ben Bradlee, then the ed­i­tor of the Wash­ing­ton Post,

first as a re­porter and later as his man­ag­ing ed­i­tor. He suc­ceeded Bradlee as ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor, serv­ing 17 years in the top role. He is now a pro­fes­sor at the Wal­ter Cronkite School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ari­zona State Univer­sity.

“The Post,” Steven Spiel­berg’s drama about how Post pub­lisher Katharine Gra­ham evolved through this pe­riod, opens in wide re­lease this week­end. I sat down with Downie, who served as a con­sul­tant on the film, to hear some be­hind-the-scenes sto­ries and dis­cuss his hopes for jour­nal­ism.

Our in­ter­view here has been edited for length.

So, can you set the scene for us? In 1971, what was hap­pen­ing in and out of the Post news­room?

Well, first of all, Katharine Gra­ham had been pub­lisher of the pa­per only since 1963, when her hus­band com­mit­ted sui­cide. Her fa­ther, Eu­gene Meyer, bought the Post at auc­tion be­cause it was go­ing bank­rupt in 1933. He in­vested a lot of money in it and then chose her hus­band, Philip Gra­ham, af­ter she got mar­ried, to suc­ceed him in run­ning the news­pa­per. (Af­ter Phil Gra­ham’s death), all the men around the news­pa­per ex­pected, the board of direc­tors and so on ex­pected, that she would turn it over to some man or sell it or what­ever, and in­stead she de­cided she wanted to run it. ... She wanted to pre­serve the pa­per for her fam­ily and for her chil­dren af­ter her. And so by that time she’d been run­ning it for about eight years but still was learn­ing on the job, and when there were still a lot of doubts among the men — all those rooms full of men that you go into as the only woman — about whether or not she should be run­ning the pa­per, whether it was go­ing to sur­vive.

And in 1971 she de­cided, along with the board, to take the pa­per pub­lic, which is to say to sell stock shares in it. You know, the fam­ily would re­tain a con­trol­ling stock. And at that same time the New York Times ob­tained the Pen­tagon Pa­pers and be­gan pub­lish­ing them, which of course made Ben Bradlee very jeal­ous, be­cause he had been work­ing on build­ing up the Post news­room. He was hired by Kay in 1965 to run the news­room, and he had been work­ing hard to hire good peo­ple and in­crease the size of the news­room and so on, and wanted to com­pete with the Times. And so when the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion, through the courts, stopped the Times for pub­lish­ing af­ter three days, he saw this as an op­por­tu­nity — if only he could get a hold of the pa­pers to pub­lish and to be equal to the Times.

Talk, too, about the coun­try’s feel­ings to­ward the Viet­nam War at that point.

At this point in 1971, we were more than half­way through the war. There was a draft then; it was not be­ing fought by only pro­fes­sional sol­diers, but by young men from all around the coun­try. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of them. And so every­body knew some­body who went off to war.

So by 1971, some re­porters in the field were be­gin­ning to re­port from Viet­nam that the war wasn’t go­ing well, which was con­trary to ev­ery­thing that was be­ing said in Wash­ing­ton. And also around that time was when I think the first doubts were be­gin­ning to grow in the me­dia about whether or not the me­dia was too close to the gov­ern­ment. It was very cozy with the gov­ern­ment. There was hardly any in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing about the na­tional gov­ern­ment, for ex­am­ple.

And so those things co­in­cided, I think: the doubts about the war, the doubts about whether the gov­ern­ment was telling the truth. It sort of set the stage for the ad­vent of the Pen­tagon Pa­pers.

The movie does talk about Katharine Gra­ham’s re­la­tion­ship with Robert McNa­mara, the sec­re­tary of De­fense at the time.

Yes. And Ben’s re­la­tion­ship with John Kennedy.

Right. How did they nav­i­gate those re­la­tion­ships?

Well, up un­til Kennedy’s death, Ben didn’t nav­i­gate, really, which the movie ex­plores. He ex­presses his doubts about the fact that he had not sep­a­rated out his role as a jour­nal­ist. By the way, at that time, he was a jour­nal­ist at Newsweek mag­a­zine, not yet the Post un­til 1965, which the movie kind of fuzzes over, but that’s OK.

And so he had doubts about that, and I don’t think Mrs. Gra­ham really thought a lot about it, be­cause it was her hus­band, Philip Gra­ham, who was very in­volved with pol­i­tics when he was alive. He even bro­kered the deal be­tween Kennedy and (Lyn­don) John­son that made John­son Kennedy’s vice pres­i­dent, when the two men ac­tu­ally hated each other. And her fa­ther had been very in­flu­en­tial with gov­ern­ment, too. So she was just used to grow­ing up in that kind of cozy re­la­tion­ship.

I think, as the movie shows, the Pen­tagon Pa­pers really caused her to re­flect on that and whether or not her close re­la­tion­ship with McNa­mara should fig­ure in her de­ci­sion.

What hap­pened when you pub­lished that story? What hap­pened in the coun­try? There was a tremen­dous re­ac­tion to it.

Yes, there was. As I say, the coun­try was al­ready be­gin­ning to ques­tion the war. And I think the ly­ing that was ex­posed by the Pen­tagon Pa­pers . ... As the movie shows, even be­fore the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the gov­ern­ment couldn’t pre­vent pub­li­ca­tion, other news­pa­pers around the coun­try had be­gun pub­lish­ing as­pects of it, too, af­ter the Post. So it was fi­nally spread­ing out to the whole coun­try. It wasn’t just to the elite any­more. And I think it really did con­trib­ute to the grow­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the war, the grow­ing de­mon­stra­tions with the war, that cul­mi­nated in th­ese gi­gan­tic de­mon­stra­tions in Wash­ing­ton, some of which I helped cover in the street when I was a re­porter back then.

Richard Nixon plays a role, and that’s his real voice in the movie.

That’s his real voice taken from the tapes. What’s in­ter­est­ing about that is you can hear him say­ing the same things about the me­dia that Pres­i­dent (Don­ald) Trump says in his tweets about the me­dia, only we didn’t know Nixon was say­ing that un­til af­ter the tapes came out.

What other cor­re­la­tions do you see be­tween me­dia and pol­i­tics then and now?

I see a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties. I see an in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive pe­riod right now with the me­dia in cov­er­ing this par­tic­u­lar ad­min­is­tra­tion and gov­ern­ment in gen­eral. And I see push­back, ob­vi­ously, from this ad­min­is­tra­tion and the con­ser­va­tive politi­cians who be­lieve their time has come and the me­dia ought to lay off. And I see the coun­try di­vided over it. And the coun­try was sim­i­larly di­vided over both the Pen­tagon Pa­pers pub­li­ca­tion, be­cause half the coun­try still sup­ported the war for a while.

And then, of course, a year later, just a year later, came Water­gate. And first of all, much of the coun­try didn’t pay much at­ten­tion to our re­port­ing on Water­gate, and then, when they fi­nally did again, the coun­try di­vided over those who were for and against Nixon and for and against our pub­li­ca­tion.

What’s dif­fer­ent now is, of course, this whole uni­verse of dig­i­tal me­dia, where you’ve got so many voices out there and a num­ber of them are very crit­i­cal of the me­dia. And I think it’s caused many mem­bers of the pub­lic to ques­tion just what is true and what is not true.

I want to talk about your re­la­tion­ship with Mrs. Gra­ham. I love that you call her Mrs. Gra­ham to this day. You cer­tainly have a fond­ness for her. How true is the movie to her evo­lu­tion?

Yes, the movie’s very true to her evo­lu­tion. It ob­vi­ously hap­pens a lit­tle faster in a movie than it did in real life. And it con­tin­ued af­ter the movie, af­ter she had be­come a world fig­ure. She still had some sense of, not in­ad­e­quacy, but just un­cer­tainty about her role and about her ac­com­plish­ments.

She wrote this re­mark­able au­to­bi­og­ra­phy called “Per­sonal His­tory.” A won­der­ful book that won the Pulitzer Prize. And each year in the news­room, we would have, if we won Pulitzer Prizes, we would have a cer­e­mony in the mid­dle of the news­room. Be­fore the cer­e­mony, we would stand in my of­fice and look to see that the ac­tual prizes were com­ing across the wires, to make sure that it really did hap­pen.

And on that par­tic­u­lar day, the only prize won at the news­pa­per was Mrs. Gra­ham’s prize for her book. And she was stand­ing in my of­fice with me and her good friend, the deputy ed­i­tor edi­to­rial page, Meg Green­field, who’s por­trayed in this movie. And (the an­nounce­ment) comes across on the screen. And Meg turned to her and said, “Now do you be­lieve it?”

That was a sign of the fact that she still just wasn’t com­pletely sure of her­self. It was ac­tu­ally an en­dear­ing qual­ity about her, be­cause you know, I mean, we all revered her. And yet she never be­haved ar­ro­gantly about it at all; quite the con­trary, she al­ways wasn’t quite sure that she really de­served all this.

In terms of our per­sonal re­la­tion­ship, when I was a young ed­i­tor, ac­tu­ally dur­ing the Water­gate time, I was a deputy metropoli­tan ed­i­tor of the news­pa­per. I was in­volved in some of the edit­ing of the Water­gate sto­ries. And I worked on Satur­days be­cause my boss worked Mon­day through Fri­day, so I worked Tues­day through Satur­day. And Mrs. Gra­ham worked Mon­day through Satur­day, be­cause she wanted to fig­ure out what this job was all about. And some­how we dis­cov­ered each other and she asked me to bring some peo­ple out to lunch with her.

So it be­came kind of reg­u­lar af­fair, cou­ple of times or once or twice a month. And fi­nally I re­al­ized what the pur­pose was. About half­way through lunch she would say, “And what’s Ben do­ing now?” in or­der to check up on Bradlee.

What was their re­la­tion­ship like? It looks like it evolved in the movie as well.

It did evolve. When she first hired him, she was very im­pressed by him. It was an in­stant chem­istry. There’s no doubt about it. You can see the chem­istry in the movie. It con­tin­ued through­out their re­la­tion­ship. They were very close.

But she did have views about what he was do­ing with the news­pa­per. Not so much in­di­vid­ual story cov­er­age, but views about, for in­stance, he got rid of the old women’s sec­tion and re­placed it with this Style sec­tion, and it took her a long time to get used to that. As you saw in the movie.

But she really trusted Ben, and that was even more ev­i­dent dur­ing Water­gate than it was dur­ing the Pen­tagon Pa­pers, be­cause she couldn’t know very much about what was go­ing on, who were Bob’s (Wood­ward) and Carl’s (Bern­stein) sources and so on, and she didn’t want to in­ter­fere with the news cov­er­age. What­ever Ben said we should be do­ing, she backed. And I thought that was a really fine hour, also, on her part.

So what was it like in the Post for women in 1971?

There weren’t many women in the

Post in 1971, I have to say. What had hap­pened is that dur­ing the war, more women were hired, be­cause the men were off to war dur­ing World War II and the Korean War. And then when the men came back home, they by and large took a lot of their jobs back or jobs were given back to them.

So there were some stand­out women in the news­room. But still it was a small num­ber of women. It took a lot of work, par­tic­u­larly once I took over the news­pa­per, to greatly in­crease the di­ver­sity of the news­room. I think it’s one of the lead­ers in the coun­try now.

What did you do as a con­sul­tant on the film?

First of all, I was asked to read the script that (screen­writ­ers) Liz Han­nah and Josh Singer wrote and then to “make notes,” as they say in Hol­ly­wood, which I made a lot of, and then es­tab­lished the kind of re­la­tion­ship be­tween me and Josh, be­cause he seemed to trust my judg­ment. We didn’t agree on ev­ery­thing, by any means, be­cause there are some dra­matic ef­fects in the movie that did not take place in real life. I tried to talk about it, but I un­der­stand it’s what makes a good movie. It didn’t have any­thing to do with the au­then­tic­ity of the movie as a whole or the truth of what it showed. And I said I sort of learned about that, learned about moviemak­ing.

You said that the homes they built for Katharine Gra­ham and Ben Bradlee were ex­act repli­cas.

Yes. I never had been in that house of Ben’s, be­cause I was still a young mem­ber of the staff at that time. And later he moved to this big house in Ge­orge­town where I was a lot. But Mrs. Gra­ham was liv­ing in the same house then that she lived in un­til she died. And I got to know that house really well. The first floors of th­ese houses were built on sound stages, and they spared no ex­pense. The brick on the out­side was real brick, and the re­frig­er­a­tors worked, and all that kind of stuff. And they some­how found her fab­rics and same fur­ni­ture, or they re-cre­ated it. When I walked in the first time — be­cause I have very emo­tional feel­ings about Mrs. Gra­ham, we be­came rather close over the years — I was emo­tion­ally over­taken . ... Could she be here? Could she be in some other room here?

Were there some things the movie got wrong?

Not wrong . ... Ob­vi­ously the New York

Times peo­ple wish there had been more about what the Times did and other stuff hav­ing to do with that. It gives the

Times full credit, but it doesn’t fo­cus on the Times. But in terms of what the Post was do­ing, there was noth­ing that was ex­actly wrong. Some char­ac­ters were com­pos­ites. The mem­ber of the board who gives Mrs. Gra­ham such a hard time about ev­ery­thing is a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter of board mem­bers at a time, and not an ac­tual in­di­vid­ual. And they made up hav­ing Ben ask an in­tern to go up to the New York Times when he hadn’t seen Neil Shee­han sto­ries in the pa­per for a while and Neil Shee­han was a Pen­tagon re­porter cov­er­ing the war, and he wanted to go up and find out what was go­ing on, and that didn’t really hap­pen.

I un­der­stand the dra­matic ef­fect of it, but it didn’t really hap­pen. But noth­ing was ac­tu­ally wrong.

Is this your first movie credit?

Yes, it is.

Where do you ap­pear on the cred­its?

If you sit through all the cred­its, which takes you about 10 min­utes af­ter the movie is over, about half­way down you’ll find the three of us. It says Wash­ing­ton Post con­sul­tants, and there we are. We’re be­low the cater­ers. But that doesn’t bother me, be­cause I love the food there. The food is fan­tas­tic. They de­serve all that credit.

You’ve had all this great ex­pe­ri­ence in jour­nal­ism. You’re part of this really im­por­tant movie. What do you hope for the fu­ture of jour­nal­ism?

I be­lieve in ac­count­abil­ity jour­nal­ism. That’s what my ca­reer is all about. And I be­lieve all jour­nal­ism is about ac­count­abil­ity jour­nal­ism, whether you’re cov­er­ing food or you’re cov­er­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion or you’re cov­er­ing wars.

And I want the me­dia, be­cause it’s no longer just the press any­more, but the news me­dia, to con­tinue to be very ag­gres­sive in hold­ing every­body in our so­ci­ety and the world ac­count­able to all the peo­ple that they have power and in­flu­ence over.

I’m glad to see the kind of cov­er­age there is now of ques­tions in sports, for ex­am­ple. And ob­vi­ously equal­ity for women and sex­ual ha­rass­ment and all that, ev­ery­thing. That’s the me­dia’s job. Be­cause you can find in­for­ma­tion ev­ery­where on the in­ter­net now, and it’s only the news me­dia that can do this kind of ag­gres­sive pro­fes­sional re­port­ing.

I also hope the me­dia gets it right, be­cause ev­ery time there is a mis­take now, it is really seen and peo­ple will jump on it. Ev­ery one of the ma­jor news me­dia has made at least one mis­take dur­ing this ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the pres­i­dent pounces on it. And so I don’t want that to hap­pen.

And also I would like the Amer­i­can peo­ple to have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing what the role of the me­dia is — and to be able to sep­a­rate out fact from fic­tion.

On June 30, 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in fa­vor of the news­pa­pers, up­hold­ing their right to pub­lish the Pen­tagon Pa­pers.

In the rul­ing, Jus­tice Pot­ter Ste­wart wrote:

“In the ab­sence of the govern­men­tal checks and bal­ances present in other ar­eas of our na­tional life, the only ef­fec­tive re­straint upon ex­ec­u­tive pol­icy and power in the ar­eas of na­tional de­fense and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs may lie in an en­light­ened cit­i­zenry — in an in­formed and crit­i­cal pub­lic opin­ion which alone can here pro­tect the val­ues of demo­cratic gov­ern­ment.

“For this rea­son, it is per­haps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vi­tally serves the ba­sic pur­pose of the First Amend­ment. For, without an in­formed and free press, there can­not be an en­light­ened peo­ple.”

Ni­cole Car­roll Ed­i­tor and Vice Pres­i­dent/News Ari­zona Repub­lic


Len Downie


Len Downie talks with Repub­lic Ed­i­tor Ni­cole Car­roll about the new movie “The Post.” Downie served as a con­sul­tant on the film.

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