Former Executive Editor of the Washington Post Leonard Downie sits down for a talk with NFOIC about the changing culture of accountability journalism: where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s headed.
“Leonard Downie Jr., the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School, is vice president at large of The Washington Post, where he was executive editor from 1991 to 2008. During his 44 years in the Post newsroom, he was also an investigative reporter, editor on the local and national news staffs, London correspondent, and, from 1984 to 1991, managing editor under then-executive editor Ben Bradlee. As deputy metro editor from 1972 to 1974, Downie helped supervise the Post’s Watergate coverage. He also oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of every national election from 1984 through 2008. During his 17 years as executive editor, The Washington Post won 25 Pulitzer prizes.
Downie received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, from The Ohio State University. He is the author of five books, including “The New Muckrakers,” about investigative reporting; “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril” (with Robert G. Kaiser); and “The Rules of the Game,” a novel about journalism and politics in Washington. He is co-author, with Columbia University Professor Michael Schudson, of a major report on the state of the news media, “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” published by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2009.”
—From the ASU website
Importance of Open government, public records…
Looking at it from a journalist’s point of view, I think the most important journalism done in the US is what I call accountability journalism. Which is holding government and everybody else with power and influence in our lives accountable to the rest of us. I think that’s what the first amendment was designed in the first place for, by the founding fathers, and it’s very important work for us to do now. And one of the most important sources of information in accountability journalism is public records and access to public meetings and access to deliberations of public entities. And not just to hold government accountable, which is very important, but also because government has all types of other information about other things going on in life that are very important and very useful to journalism.
So, for example, a student project we did here last year examining food safety — we were able to use government records, federal government records and state government records, not only to look at how government was performing in terms of dealing with food safety and handling outbreaks of food-borne illness, but also at how the private companies themselves were operating as well by using government records.
How has transparency changed over the years?
Well, government transparency has slowly but surely been increasing. Thanks a lot obviously to the internet. Because so many more records are digital now, and by making them digital they’re easier to examine and to analyze. In the past, I remember as a young reporter, when I had to look through mortgage records, land records, court records, it was a laborious process going through all those pieces of paper. If I wasn’t allowed to do it and some bureaucrat had to do it instead, they would have charged us a lot of money for their time. Now, so much is potentially at your fingertips, and there’s a lot of pressure by government to make more and more of it available to the public and to the press digitally at virtually no cost to the government because those records are there available that way. So increasingly, government has been doing a better job of opening up access to records. Most of the federal government agencies have a certain amount of access to records. The White House has a certain amount of access on its website. Local and state governments are doing more and more. But it’s one of those things where you take two steps forward and sometimes a step backwards. For instance, the Obama administration came into office with the president vowing to make a lot more available. And indeed, when you look over the government, some of the government agencies are making more available, more records available, more information available than before, but others are not. Particularly in the national security area, there’s less availability of information now than there was before. So it’s a constant struggle going on with the press, with non-governmental organizations, to gain access to more information and to pressure government at all levels to provide more information for the people.
Another new development are these non-governmental organizations and bloggers and citizens groups and so on, who again are able to use the internet not only to access this information and to analyze it. A lot of information that reporters use has actually been obtained by non-governmental organizations in the campaign finance field, for instance. There are non-governmental organizations that obtain FEC information that would be hard for reporters to plow through, and they analyze it and they’re able to show the patterns of campaign contributions, for instance. Who they come from, who they go to, and then that analysis is then provided to the news media, which makes things much, much more easier to do than they were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.
But it also makes it possible for citizens in these organizations to increasingly pressure government; it’s not just the local newspaper in town saying, ‘hey, we want your government to be open,’ it’s the citizens group down the street, it’s the lawyers association, it’s the PTA, it’s a whole variety of people who have reason to want to see these records and they’re putting pressure on government, too, and that’s harder to resist than just resisting the media.
Tips, tricks for getting information?
The first thing to do is to do your own search on the Internet and there are obviously a whole variety of ways to do that. Editors, for instance here at the Cronkite School, one of the great records journalists — Steve Doig, formally of the Miami Herald is here so he can instruct students on how to look for things. I think he begins each semester by challenging them to see what they can find about him on the Internet, and they’re always stunned by how much information they can gain on him just by doing your own searches. And most of these organizations have people that can help with you that — non-governmental organizations have people that can help you with that. You start out making your own searches, and then if you find that there are places where there are records that you’re not able to search by yourself, you’re not able to look up the government agency and look up the records that you’re after, that’s when you contact that agency and ask for the information you’re looking for. And ask, “am I going to have to file a freedom of information act request for this or are you just going to give it to me?” And if they’re not just going to give it to you, then you tell them, yes I am going to file a FOIA request, which often will make them just give it to you because they don’t want to go through the trouble of dealing with your request. But then often, you do have to file it. Then there are rules that apply. How soon they have to answer you the first time, if you don’t like the answer — your appeal, and so on. So you have to follow those rules, and sometimes you have to bring lawyers in, sometimes it takes years to get the information that you want but if it’s valuable enough for you, you’ll go through that slog. But again, it’s helpful when non-governmental organizations like the ACLU or conservative groups that have an agenda and want to get information out for a reason, they will often supply the legal talent needed and the expense to follow through these requests for years on end and then they can release it to the media. So that’s another reason they can be useful in this process.
We also advise that you go to people who might have that information who don’t feel like they’re targets of your reporting. So, for example, there might be lawyers involved in a legal case, who would have information that perhaps a court or a business does not want to give to you. Or there may be other governments that have the information. We discovered, for instance, in our food safety investigation that sometimes when the federal government either didn’t have information or was slow to give it to us, we could go to states involved in the food safety investigations for example, and they more readily gave us the information — in part because each one of the 50 states have their own separate freedom of information laws. And some of them are much more liberal and easy to operate through then other states. Some of them are easier to use than the federal government’s freedom of information act. So you want to try to triangulate where you can obtain these records.
The future of investigative journalism?
To use the classic cliché, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that the big, commercial news organizations that had plenty of money to do anything they wanted to for a long time are getting much smaller because the advertising revenue that subsidized them and subsidized investigative reporting for decades is declining rapidly — it’s not going to go away entirely, but it’s declining a lot and therefore the news organizations have had to cut costs, and as a result they have less money to devote to investigative reporting, period, and to the time that it takes and to the expense sometimes of obtaining this information.
The good news is two-fold. The good news is that anybody can search through this information for free much more than before because so much more is available on the internet because government agencies are putting it up and so you don’t need to go to the expense or take the time that you used to, and that’s good. Many people have access to that information, not just commercial news organizations.
And the other part of the good news is the beginnings of a kind of ecosystem in which there are a number of nonprofit news organizations that have been started simply to do investigative and accountability journalism. Locally, at the state level, and even at the national level, and increasingly they are collaborating with the old commercial news organizations. That’s a win-win thing, to use another cliché, because the non-profits then get much wider exposure for their journalism when their stories are published in the Washington Post or the Arizona Republic and on television, and the commercial news organizations are able to get journalistic work done that they don’t have to pay as much for as they had to before because these organizations are providing it for them.
And it’s all changing very rapidly. So it’s hard for me to say five years from now, what our situation will be, because there are good things happening and there are worrying things happening.
Stories or memorable pieces you’ve done as a result of obtaining records?
I’ll give you a couple examples of that. One was when I was literally a young reporter in my 20’s, in the 1960s — before there was an Internet and before there were much in the way of computers operating in this area. I had to do my own literally pencil and paper records keeping.
I investigated a local court that was a mess and I had to take an entire year’s worth of felony cases and I had to do my own analysis — I almost said computer analysis but I didn’t have a computer! — I had to literally write down what happened to each individual case: was it prosecuted fully, was there a jury trial, or was it settled by a plea bargain, depending upon which judge you went before what was the severity of the sentence… and I’d do all that myself and I created a year’s record for that court that didn’t exist otherwise.
Similarly, a few years later, I was doing an investigation of slum land ownership, and I had to go into the recorder of deed’s office in Washington, DC and go through all the paper records of who owned all the property and who held the mortgages on them in certain neighborhoods in Washington and again, come up with my own records of that. So that was my own way to do it and in some cases that’s still necessary now in areas where either computer records aren’t being kept, and you’d be surprised how many… I’ve just been judging a contest with the Investigative Reporters and Editors group of using FOI as a tool and I’m surprised at how many courts and local governments are still using paper records. So to some extent, they’re still going through paper records and not being able to use digital records.
More recently, the Washington Post — without my being involved in it — used digital records of all different kinds in order to compare the earmarks that Congressmen put on bills to send money to their constituencies with land that they own or businesses that they a relationship with in those constituencies. They found that a number of Congressmen, indeed, put earmarks on those bills to improve a highway or build a bridge right next to a business that they owned or right next to a piece of property that they owned, and that was all done through computer-assisted analysis of publicly available digital records. I wish I could have had that as a tool back when I was a young reporter.
How is Arizona ranked in transparency?
It seems to be in the middle to upper-middle as near as I can tell. Now I’m not a working journalist here in the sense of local journalism. But from what I read, when I look at the access that people have had, it seems to be one of the better states.
The culture of denial among agencies? Will that ever change, will things open up?
It’s never going to change completely because people are going to be protective. Again, as I said, this administration — the Obama administration — set out to make federal government records much more available than before. But there are investigative projects that I’m aware of, including the food safety project, but also a project that a newspaper did on bad doctors and what happens to them as they move from state to state to try to escape what went wrong in the previous state — and the agencies involved, like the HHS and the FDA, have not been very good about providing records for those things. And that was a surprise to me and disappointing to me. They clearly are still influenced by the constituencies that they serve — the food industry, the drug industry, and the medical industry. So that’s never going to completely go away because government bureaucrats are going to want to protect themselves from investigations into wrongdoing and in some cases they’re going to want to protect, or be forced to protect, their constituencies in these investigations.
But as I said earlier, I think in generally speaking, we’re moving more and more towards open government all the time because it’s inescapable — because there’s so much digitally available, as Wikileaks proved, that if you’re not going to give it out officially, well maybe somebody who works in that agency is going to provide it anyway.