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Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser

The two Washington Post journalists have co-written the book, The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril. (Knopf) Downie has been at the paper since 1964. Hes been executive editor since 1991. Kaiser joined the Post in 1963 and is now associate editor and senior correspondent. Their book is an investigation of why the journalism we watch and read is so bad. They offer suggestions on how to improve the institution.


Other segments from the episode on February 28, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 28, 2002: Interview with Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser; Review of the soundtrack from the film “Gosford Park.”


DATE February 28, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser talk about their
new book, "The News About The News: American Journalism in Peril"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to hear an insider's perspective on the news business from two
people who are particularly well-equipped to give it. My guests are Leonard
Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post and Robert G. Kaiser,
associate editor and senior correspondent. They've worked together since 1964
when they were interns at The Post. They were both reporters and foreign
correspondents before becoming editors. They've collaborated on the new book
"The News About The News: American Journalism in Peril."

Let's start with the press and the war against terrorism. Downie and Kaiser
say that the press has been up against serious obstacles in covering the war
because the military and the CIA have been trying to conduct a secret war and
have been antagonistic toward deep press coverage, and that's making it
riskier for reporters. I asked Downie and Kaiser if they think the Bush
administration needs to be this secretive to wage the war effectively or
whether the reasons are perhaps more self-serving.

Mr. ROBERT G. KAISER (Associate Editor, The Washington Post): It does seem to
us that the Bush administration wants to conduct this war like a little
private party and really doesn't have any compelling sense that there's a
public need to know much at all. There was an agreement you may remember
after the Gulf War signed in '92 between the Pentagon and news organizations
about how to cover future military operations. The Bush administration has
simply disregarded that in this episode.

GROSS: What kind of access would that have given you that you feel you're not

Mr. KAISER: Well, it was designed for a recurrence of the Gulf War more than
for this war, so you can't, say, enumerate a specific list, I don't think.
But the spirit of it was that as soon as possible the military would invite
reporters on operations, would make room for reporters on military flights,
would, you know, make access possible for the maximum number of reporters as
fast as possible, and that just didn't happen.

The big things in this war were never opened up. For example, the Kitty Hawk,
which was the carrier that was the base for the Special Forces and the CIA
groups, was off-limits to reporters for the entire duration of its stationing
in the sea out there. I forget--the Indian Ocean, I guess. And other things
were just blocked off. The base in Uzbekistan was blocked off for all but one
brief visit when Rumsfeld himself went there and so on. So they just haven't
had a spirit of letting war being covered openly in any way.

GROSS: And how do you think that the secrecy within the Bush administration
is compromising the safety of your reporters?

Mr. LEONARD DOWNIE Jr. (Executive Editor, The Washington Post): Because they
do not have military escorts or have not been able to be embedded with US
troops, they obviously have no physical protection from US troops whatsoever.
And, in fact, many of the CIA operatives and Special Forces people try to keep
reporters at a distance away from them. So there's absolutely no protection
from American authorities of any kind. So they've had to be on their own and,
you know, we can't complain about that. That's often the case now in this
world where an awful lot of ethnic conflicts are going on across the globe.
Foreign correspondents are increasingly at risk of being caught in a cross
fire of those wars. We're being victimized by banditry. And those are
exactly the risks that have been taken in Afghanistan where so far more
correspondents have been killed in this war than have been American forces by
hostile fire.

GROSS: Well, we just recently learned about the execution of Danny Pearl.
I'm wondering if you're giving any advice now to your overseas reporters about
being more cautious, if the execution of Daniel Pearl--if his kidnapping and
execution affected the kind of advice you're giving your foreign reporters
about their own safety.

Mr. DOWNIE: Yes. In fact, right from the beginning, we knew this was a
dangerous situation over there for the reasons that I cited, and so we sent in
by and large only correspondents who've been experienced in these kinds of
wars before and/or people who could accompany more experienced reporters until
they learn the ropes. But after the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, we've made
some specific rules for our reporters. We've left them all in the region.
They're continuing to do their work. We haven't pulled anybody out, but they
are supposed to observe rules about traveling in groups and other things to
protect their safety.

GROSS: Can you tell us about some of those rules?

Mr. DOWNIE: One of them, for instance, is to not go off on your own when it's
not necessary and to keep their colleagues as well as the home office apprised
of their whereabouts at all times. Fortunately one of the great technological
advantages in this war is the satellite phone, which enables us to speak with
our correspondents wherever they are and for them to call us from wherever
they are. And that's actually proved helpful in several situations where
correspondents either felt lost in the chaos of the war or feared for their
safety. We were able to assist them by talking with them over the satellite
phone and helping them take steps to protect themselves.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of what kind of assistance you could give
by satellite phone from Washington that could help an imperiled reporter in

Mr. DOWNIE: Shortly after the Northern Alliance succeeded in taking some of
the towns in the North, in the celebrations that occurred afterwards was a lot
of lawlessness, and in at least one case, one of our correspondents felt that
she was in great danger there and was actually hiding out in the town to
escape the gunfire and chaos going on in the streets, was able to contact us
by satellite phone, and we were able to provide assistance with another one of
our correspondents to help her leave that town.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Leonard Downie Jr., executive
editor of The Washington Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor and
roving correspondent at The Post. They're the authors of the new book, "The
News About The News: American Journalism in Peril."

The New York Times was recently leaked a Pentagon memo saying that the
Pentagon was starting a special office for foreign news that would distribute
both real news and disinformation to foreign news sources for the purposes of
shaping public opinion and the opinion of policy-makers around the world.
After that memo was leaked to The Times, Donald Rumsfeld said, well, he wasn't
really aware of it. This doesn't seem like a very good idea, and now this
idea has been--this office is closed. What do you think of how The Times
handled that leaked memo, and what does the impact of that say to you about

Mr. KAISER: Well, they handled it very well. It was a very good story. We
envied it. Happily, we've left them a lot to envy as well in the last few
months. But you know, this is a very good example of the power of journalism.
Information is the power here. What had to happen was the world had to find
out that this cockamamy idea was in somebody's head in the Pentagon, and as
soon as it became known, really, there was almost unanimous condemnation of
it, from Congress, from editorial writers, from all over the place, and from
Donald Rumsfeld, who genuinely did seem surprised. I don't know whether to
credit that or not. It doesn't matter, but in fact, as soon as the intention
was clear, the idea collapsed.

GROSS: What impact would it have on you if there was a Pentagon office that
was knowingly giving out false information, spreading disinformation, to
foreign news sources?

Mr. DOWNIE: It would obviously make our jobs more difficult. People would
not necessarily believe our reporters were acting independently of the
government. It obviously would be spreading disinformation we would then have
to check out to see what was true and what was not true. It's really not a
very good idea for the government to be engaged in that sort of thing.

Mr. KAISER: But most important, Terry, I think it would mean that we wouldn't
be able to take anything seriously the Pentagon ever said again.

GROSS: Have you been in a situation yet, since September 11th, where you
wanted to publish something and the government has asked you not to for
purposes of security?

Mr. DOWNIE: There have been several instances in which, as we've gone about
our reporting of various matters, usually having to do with intelligence
operations, when the government, once they have knowledge that we're doing
this reporting, have raised questions about whether or not publishing some
very specific information within a story would damage national security, and
we've agreed in three or four instances not to withhold stories
entirely--we've published the stories--but to leave out of those stories very
specific, usually technical, information about methods of surveillance, for
example, or electronic eavesdropping, or the exact locations of covert
operations that probably would endanger American lives, and we do not want to
do that.

GROSS: Now how does the government know in the first place that you have this
information? Do you call up a Pentagon official and say, `Look...'

Mr. DOWNIE: No, no.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. DOWNIE: No, no. We don't do that. No, what happens is that as our
reporters do their reporting, they're obviously asking questions about the
information they're gathering, and that automatically brings it to the
attention of people in the chain of command.

GROSS: And so you get the call from somebody in the Pentagon, saying, `Don't
go with this fact.'

Mr. DOWNIE: Yes, they ...(unintelligible) an issue. It can be the Pentagon,
the CIA, the White House, you know, a variety of places, and sometimes it's
initiated with the reporter, and then they will pass it up to their editors.

GROSS: And do you have a meeting about that, or does, like, one editor
usually make the decision?

Mr. DOWNIE: We have discussions, sometimes lengthy discussions, if it's
necessary, before making the decision, and the final decision is mine.

GROSS: My guests are Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington
Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor. Their new book is called "The
News About The News." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Leonard Downie Jr., who is
executive editor of The Washington Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, associate
editor and roving correspondent at The Post. They've written a new book
called "The News About The News: American Journalism in Peril."

I'd like to ask you to choose an investigative story at The Post that you're
very proud of. You can use an example from the book or another one, if you

Mr. KAISER: We'd choose, I think, the 1998 series on shootings of civilians
on the streets of Washington by the DC Police Department, which we describe at
considerable length in "The News About The News."

GROSS: Yeah. This is a story about how there were more shootings of
civilians in Washington, maybe almost twice as much, as in most comparable
cities. What was the investigation about? Why did you initiate this story?

Mr. KAISER: It's a wonderful example of how investigative reporting really
works. A database editor, as she was called--funny new title in new
journalism--was familiar with an FBI crime reporting system that she'd done
some computer work on in the past. And her previous work had convinced her
that there was a category of shootings that looked like something suspicious.
And she took it to the editors of The Washington Post's investigative reporting
team, and they started to talk about it and think about it and, to make a long
story very short, decided that there was something here worth pursuing.

And they discovered that, indeed, the FBI had been collecting statistics on
the number of times citizens were killed by police shootings. And enormous
amount of effort and sometimes lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act
and other maneuvers slowly elicited the gory details. They found that
numerous families had sued the Washington police over the deaths of their
family members, which they considered unwarranted and things of that kind.
And over many months they pieced together an enormously elaborate jigsaw
puzzle which showed the extent of these police shootings.

GROSS: What do you think the story accomplished?

Mr. KAISER: Well, this is one of those lovely occasions when you can say
emphatically that it accomplished an enormous amount, because--I don't have
the numbers in my head now--but whereas there were something like 39 people
killed in the last year that was the subject of the investigation, by last
year, 2000, it was down to seven. The police department here retrained every
member of the force; they had new training both in when to shoot and how to
shoot and went through elaborate changes. There's an interesting story in the
recent Washington Post just the other day showing that the numbers snuck up
a little bit in 2001, but it's still way below the level that we exposed in
the original series.

So this is a really nice case where we literally saved lives by publishing
this material.

GROSS: And was the story very expensive or very time-consuming?

Mr. KAISER: It was enormously time-consuming. It probably consumed three or
four man-years, maybe five or six even, if you think of everybody involved,
man- and woman-years. But the expense of it beyond the salaries of the people
on the job and the usual expenses of gathering news and probably some legal
fees for the FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, lawsuits, were not extensive.
It was in our back yard; we didn't have to travel far. So it was just a
question of paying the salaries and the expenses of everybody involved in the

Mr. DOWNIE: Which is the kind of commitment to what we call accountability
reporting that's so important in American journalism. And when we see
newsrooms being shrunk at newspapers and the television networks and local
television stations in order to increase profits, we realize that this is the
kind of reporting that would usually be squeezed out, because it did require
devoting six or seven people to the story exclusively; not doing anything else
for a year's time. And you can't do that if you don't have a large enough

GROSS: Well, did you have to justify the expense of this to your publisher?

Mr. DOWNIE: No, not at all. You know, I get an annual budget to run the
newsroom and I make all the decisions after that about how we allocate our
resources, number one. Number two, both our publisher, Bo Jones, and the CEO
of The Washington Post, Donald Graham, believe this is the kind of journalism
that's important to be doing as a public service to our community.

GROSS: In your book you include a story that you think The Washington Post
didn't do well at. You say with this story you failed as watchdogs, allowing
President Reagan and his associates to abuse their power and the Constitution.
And this is an Iran-Contra story. The story begins on October of 1986 when
Sandinista soldiers in Nicaragua shot down a cargo plane with four men; three
of them Americans. The only survivor was a soldier of fortune named Eugene
Hasenfus. Take the story from there.

Mr. DOWNIE: The story actually began before then, because before that plane
crash the Reagan administration, through the efforts of a national security
council aide named Oliver North, had been illegally and--contrary to what
Congress had written in law, illegally using the proceeds from the sales of
arms to Iran to finance the activities of the Contra rebels in Latin America,
and this had been going on for some time and the media had not cracked the
case at all. So when Hasenfus' plane crashed, we saw some glimmerings of
what might be going on there, and I worked hard to try to get the newsroom
energized to chase this story.

And Bob Kaiser, who was then the assistant managing editor in charge of
national news, actually sent out a bunch of reporters both here and abroad who
tried to crack the story, but we really weren't able to say what was really
going on until a small newspaper in Lebanon was able to, first, reveal the
sales of arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages there.
And then when that created a firestorm in Washington, it was the Reagan
administration itself, Attorney General Edwin Meese, who first revealed the
diversion of these funds to the Contras.

GROSS: So what...

Mr. KAISER: The point was, Terry...


Mr. KAISER: ...that the sins that were committed here, the bad stuff that was
going on, had gone on for well over a year before the airplane crashed, and we
had missed it entirely. It was right under our noses and we didn't see it.

GROSS: But when the airplane crashed, that was the first clue you had that
something was really going on...

Mr. DOWNIE: Yes.

Mr. KAISER: That's...

GROSS: ...because Hasenfus said he was working--he thought he was working
for the CIA.

Mr. KAISER: Correct.

GROSS: So in retrospect, what do you think you could have done in
investigating this plane crash that might have led you sooner to the
Iran-Contra scandal?

Mr. KAISER: Well, it would have been before the plane crash. And in fact, we
did have some whiffs of it. We described this episode in the book. You knew
that North was up to something funny. We wrote about North. North had made a
kind of bizarre attempt to keep his name out of The Washington Post and The
New York Times on the grounds that somehow his life was in danger if his name
was mentioned. That got our hackles up. There was whiffs in the air of
strange things going on, but we just had no idea of the boldness of the
operations that North was trying to run here.

And it would have been months earlier that we'd have gotten some clue about
these secret missions to Tehran. You remember the crazy thing with the cake
for the ayatollah and all that stuff was going on; that's what I'm talking
about, the stuff we missed that we didn't know.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KAISER: And the fact is, you know, we're not infallible by any means. We
miss stories. And sometimes, as in the case of Hasenfus' plane crash, it's
just dumb luck that these things come unraveled.

One of the interesting subjects that Len and I talk about privately over the
years is: What are we missing? What have we missed completely? You know,
are there going to be more surprises? Books will be written, memoirs will be
disclosed, memories will be disclosed, I should say, and it happens all the
time. There's just no way that reporters in this day and age can find out
everything that's going on, I don't think.

Mr. DOWNIE: It's, again, a reminder, though, that this kind of accountability
reporting, holding the government accountable to the people, takes an awful
lot of time, effort and determination. This is very hard work, because a
number of people in that administration lied to us about this, just as goes on
in every administration, Democratic or Republican. If they're doing something
they want to hide from the American people, they will lie to the media about
it. They'll take advantage of their relationships with reporters they know.
So it takes an enormous amount of work to get around behind the scenes and
discover what's really going on.

GROSS: Now in your book you explain that there was a point where you were
ready to say that Oliver North was implicated in his wrongdoings, but you were
asked by the Reagan administration not to name him. Who asked you? What
reason did they give?

Mr. DOWNIE: A White House official asked me and said that he was concerned
that having his name in the paper would risk his life.

GROSS: North was concerned.

Mr. DOWNIE: Yes. We do not knowingly publish things in the newspaper when we
think it really will endanger somebody's life. But what I insisted on was
talking to Oliver North himself, which I did, and he was not able to convince
me that there was any real danger of his life of having him as a public
official named in the newspapers. We always name public officials, and we
went ahead and used his name.

GROSS: Oh, so you did go ahead and use it?

Mr. DOWNIE: Yes, we did.

GROSS: Gee, it must be a really strange position to be able to say, `No, I
don't think you're really in danger, so I'm going to go ahead and publish your
name,' because say he's right, say he really is in danger and say someone in
his family is killed, I mean, that would be on your head for publishing it.

Mr. KAISER: Luckily, it's never happened.

GROSS: Yeah, right. But it must be really hard to call somebody's bluff in a
situation where so much could be at stake.

Mr. DOWNIE: Well, this is the nature of editing a newspaper or running a
television news operation, in that somebody needs to make the final decisions
about what goes in the paper, what goes on the air and what doesn't. We have
a finite amount of space in the newspaper, so we decide on basis of relevance,
for instance, what's going to go in the paper, and we also have to make these
kinds of decisions about safety and about national security and somebody has
to make the decision.

We do our best to consult widely so that we make informed decisions. I've had
a lot of experience doing this over the years, and I could tell that at that
time Mr. North was not straight with me.

GROSS: Leonard Downie Jr. is the executive editor of The Washington Post.
Robert G. Kaiser is the paper's associate editor. They'll be back in the
second half of their show. They're new book is called "The News About The
News: American Journalism in Peril."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, the journalistic ethics of covering the private lives of
politicians. We continue our conversation with Washington Post executive
editor Leonard Downie Jr. and associate editor Robert G. Kaiser.

And Lloyd Schwartz reviews the sound track from the film "Gosford Park."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Leonard Downie Jr.,
executive editor of The Washington Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, The Post
associate editor. They've written a new book called "The News About the News:
American Journalism in Peril."

When we left off we were talking about a story where they think they failed to
be good watchdogs, the Iran-Contra story.

You were lied to many times by the Reagan administration about Iran-Contra.
What impact does that have on you as journalists when you're lied to by the
very top?

Mr. KAISER: Well, you know, we've been lied to by every administration. Len
and I have been at The Washington Post from Johnson through Bush II, and I
don't think any of them could have pristine records on this issue. It's just
what happens. Politicians get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar and
they don't want to fess up to it. And so, you know, we are very skeptical
about official assertions. We don't tend to take them at face value. We tend
to question and probe because all of our life experiences over four decades
have taught us that that's what's justified.

GROSS: Well, you were both at The Washington Post during Watergate. How
directly did you each work on Watergate?

Mr. KAISER: I was the Moscow correspondent, so I wasn't...

GROSS: Not directly.

Mr. KAISER: ...too deeply involved.

Mr. DOWNIE: I was one of the editors editing the coverage of Watergate, first
the coverage of the hearings by a reporter named Larry Meyer, and later on I
took over the editing of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

GROSS: What's the most difficult editorial decision you had to make on

Mr. DOWNIE: Being right every single time we published a story because we
knew what the risks were if we made a mistake, since for the longest time we
were alone on the story. And even when we had competition later on, from
others in the media, the Nixon administration was putting such pressure to try
to stop our reporting and would have jumped on any mistake that we made. So
the pressure to be right was extraordinary.

GROSS: So you were fact checking and double fact checking.

Mr. DOWNIE: Oh, yes. And constantly, you know, going through every story
with a fine-tooth comb questioning every assertion made in it for hours at a
time every single day.

GROSS: Now you were lied to, of course, by the Nixon administration during
Watergate. What are some of the lessons you learned from Watergate about
covering presidents?

Mr. DOWNIE: Well, the lessons really did begin earlier, as Bob alluded to,
with Vietnam.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOWNIE: That was when, you know, the government first lying to the press
and to the American people really became an issue, I think, for the media and
really began to change the media's approach to coverage of government. And
then Watergate only heightened it. And I think ever since then there has been
this really strong skepticism that Bob talked about, about assertions by any

Sometimes it takes on a kind of frivolous nature, if you watch the White House
briefings for the press every day. They are skeptical about everything the
president's press secretary says, even rather mundane matters. But it also is
very useful, for instance, in covering the secret war to be sure that what the
Pentagon is telling us is really true by sending reporters out on the ground,
and to great peril to their lives, to find out what's really happening.

GROSS: I want to get to another example that you write about in your new
book, and this is the controversy over whether to cover the private lives of
presidential candidates. And this came up for you during the presidential
campaign between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. The Post learned about Bob Dole's
1971 divorce and the fact that he had an affair before the divorce. I guess I
should say The Post learned about how Bob Dole handled that 1971 divorce.
Tell us what you learned and what the controversy was within The Post about
whether or not to publish this.

Mr. KAISER: What happened was we published a story by Kevin Merida about the
divorce. Bob Dole's first wife was a nurse who had cared for him and brought
him back to life after his terrible war wounds late in World War II. They got
married. She supported him, took notes for him through law school, took care
of him. They were very close for many years. They have a daughter together.
But the marriage seemed to dry up somewhat.

And one fine day, Dole came home and announced, to the amazement of his wife,
that they were getting a divorce and she should rush out to Kansas immediately
and sign the papers and go to this place and that place and everything will be
taken care of at once. And he'd kind of greased the wheels in Kansas to make
this divorce very easy and very quick. She was shocked and amazed, went
through the motions, got the divorce. And Kevin learned about this in the
course of a profile of Bob Dole's personal life, and it would seem to us quite
interesting and we wrote a story about it.

As soon as the story appeared, we started getting phone calls saying, `Well,
you missed a big element of the story. He had a girlfriend. And it didn't
take very long to establish that, yes indeed, he had a young woman in
Washington, young at the time, with whom he had taken up and whose apartment
he visited and been seen by neighbors visiting and so on. And before long, we
had confirmed to our satisfaction that 27 years earlier there had been such a
love affair.

GROSS: And then you had to decide...

Mr. KAISER: Then the question was...

GROSS: ...whether to publish the information...

Mr. KAISER: Exactly.

GROSS: ...about that love affair.

Mr. KAISER: What do you do with this? And in our book we shared the
experience, or tried to. One of the purposes of this book is to help people
understand how the news media work from the inside, and this is one of our
inside examples. And luckily we had a lot of written records and we've had a
lot of exchanges of memoranda on this issue. People, led by me, trying to
persuade Len that because Dole and the Republicans were running against Bill
Clinton on the implicit proposition that they were the moral alternative to an
immoral president, that this was newsworthy and we ought to write the story
even though it didn't conform, obviously, with our general standards on the
relevance of personal lives and personal peccadillos in the political context.
I argued, and Bob Woodward argued and others, this was a good story.

And we argued back and forth about it over a period of weeks. As Bob
Woodward, ultimately, and Chuck Babcock, the two reporters who were working on
the story and found the woman and interviewed her and got her on the record to
talk about it--they kept offering different versions, rewriting, trying to
figure out a way to couch it that seemed OK. And this went on for a couple of
weeks or more, four weeks probably. The Dole campaign sent emissaries to us
to try to convince us not to use this story. Went back and forth.

And now I should let Leonard explain why he decided not to publish the story.

GROSS: Take it, Leonard Downie.

Mr. DOWNIE: Right. In making decisions about publishing information about
the private lives of public officials, we have two criteria we need to meet.
One is, is it true or not? Can we prove it? And secondly, is it relevant to
their performance in public office or to their election campaigns? In this
case we were able to prove it was true, so that satisfied criteria number one.

But criteria number two, I was never convinced that this was relevant to
either Bob Dole's performance in public office during the 27 years that
followed this affair, most of the time in which he was married to Elizabeth
Dole in a marriage, as far as we know, with no blemishes whatsoever, or had
anything to do with his fitness to be president of the United States, since
all that time had passed since he had had this consensual affair. There also
was no misuse of his office at the time. He was a congressman, but he wasn't
using state troopers or government cars or any other way in which he was using
his office either to conduct the affair or to keep it quiet. In fact, it was
a consensual relationship that was well-known to her and to her friends and
neighbors at the time. So there didn't seem to be any moral turpitude
questions here outside his relationship with his wife that were relevant to
his campaign for president. So in the end I decided that we should not
publish the story.

GROSS: But what about the argument that, you know, the Republicans were still
calling Clinton morally bankrupt and yet, you know, Bob Dole didn't really
confer with his wife about the divorce. He had had an affair that he kept
secret. I mean...

Mr. DOWNIE: Remember, we did publish a story about the divorce because our
decision there was...

GROSS: That's true. Right.

Mr. DOWNIE: ...that that was relevant because, among other things, he had
used his political connections in Kansas in order to get a quickie divorce.
So that was relevant to his conduct in office and was a different matter.

GROSS: But the secret affair wasn't? I mean, this...

Mr. DOWNIE: I don't...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DOWNIE: Yeah. When you say secret, again, it wasn't something that had
been made publicly known at the time or covered by the news media at the time,
but it was also not something that was being conducted clandestinely. It was
a relationship between two consenting adults 27 years before he was running
for president.

Mr. KAISER: In the book there's an instant memo from David Broder arguing
that, in fact, that Dole wasn't casting himself as the moral alternative
anything like the degree to which many Republicans wanted him to. And indeed,
we had the feeling that once Dole knew that we knew about this affair, he ran
away from that tack of argument very quickly and, indeed, didn't use it very
much. So it's a muddy area, but because we have this written record, which we
share in the book, anybody can judge this for themselves. They don't have to
take our word for it, I think.

GROSS: Robert Kaiser, are you happy with Leonard Downie's decision not to
print the story about the affair?

Mr. KAISER: I am because--well, for two reasons. Well, for more than two
reasons. But interestingly, the story wasn't hidden from view because of
Leonard's decision. Two weeks later, or less, the National Enquirer, of all
distinguished newspapers, printed a very good story about this love affair,
just as good as our story would have been, I think, in terms of the number of
facts and confirmations they had on the record. And Dole himself had to
respond to a question about the National Enquirer story, posed, if I remember
correctly, by a New York Daily News reporter in New York.

And when that happened, here it was in the public domain, and Leonard and I
together decided that we had to put something about it in the paper since we
knew about it. So buried deep in a story in The Post the next day, we had
three or four paragraphs saying this had happened, Dole made this statement
about it. The Post actually had heard about this before and it investigated
and confirmed that this affair occurred. And then we quoted Len in our own
paper saying, "But we decided we wouldn't publish the first story about this"
because it didn't meet the criteria that Leonard has just described.

So I might have had some residual bitterness--I doubt it--if the story had
never come out. But it did come out, so on that count I was pleased. But
more importantly I was pleased because I really believe in the system that
prevails at The Washington Post, and I wish it prevailed at a lot more news
organizations, which is another subject we write about in this book. But we
are completely independent in making these decisions. But we are also a total
dictatorship. The executive editor gets the last word, and in this case he
exercised the last word.

But that tradition and that procedure is so beneficial to good journalism and
so many other situations that it seems to me very foolish and short-sighted to
get angry about it on those rare moments when the decision comes out in a way
that one disagrees with. It's a great way to run an independent newspaper.
There are very few in the country, unfortunately, run this way. We're very
proud that we're on of them and we want to preserve it.

GROSS: My guests are Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington
Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor. Their new book is called "The
News About the News." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Leonard Downie Jr., executive
editor of The Washington Post, and Robert G. Kaiser, associate editor and
roving correspondent. They're the authors of the new book "The News About the
News: American Journalism in Peril."

One of the reasons why you think American journalism is in peril is because of
how the business end is almost trying to take over the priorities from the
news end. You write about how the business end of newspaper publishing is
changing. Large chains now own more than 1,200 of the nation's 1,500 dailies,
you say. There's pressures to increase the profits. Sometimes the
shareholders' interests are put ahead of news considerations. And you write,
`Perhaps the most important change for editors is their incorporation into the
business side of the papers. They're expected to do things that old-fashioned
editors wouldn't have dreamed of.' Like what?

Mr. KAISER: Like go to the marketing meeting, like think up the next gimmick
to try to increase circulation, like participate in the decision to start
charging for the publication of obituary notices in the paper. All sorts of
business decisions which used to be completely the purview of the business
side now become part of the purview of the editor as well. And incidentally,
this happens just as much in local television stations and in the national
television networks as it does in newspapers.

Mr. DOWNIE: And also have compensation tied to the profitability of the news
organization, which means that the editor would have to think twice about
publishing something in the paper that, for instance, might be very important
for readers' protection but would anger an advertiser who might withdraw their
advertising, reduce the profitability of the paper and cut the editor's

GROSS: Now are these kinds of circulation gimmicks problems at The Washington
Post or do you feel protected from that?

Mr. KAISER: We're fabulously protected. We're really so fortunate. And one
of our trepidations in writing this book is we know that all of our colleagues
will secretly or openly say, `Oh, those guys have got such a fab deal there.
Who are they to pass judgement on the rest of us?'

The Graham family, like the Sulzberger family that owns the--or controls The
New York Times, has this wonderfully generous attitude that the purpose of the
paper, first of all, is public service, that the editors must be independent.
We participate. I did when I was managing editor of The Post, Len does still,
in regular meetings with the business side. There's no reason not to be
participants in the business. We need to make profits or we can't support our
news organization. That's an important part of what we do.

But we're not asked to do terrible things. And in our case, certainly, Len
has an absolute veto over anything that the paper might consider doing that he
considers a threat to the editorial integrity and independence of The
Washington Post.

Mr. DOWNIE: The news organizations that we studied where the news is getting
better rather than worse are those in which the owners have emphasized that in
addition to being profitable, they want their news organizations to serve the
public interest. Now that's true of the Newhouse family, who are improving
their newspapers, the McClatchy family, who have the controlling interest in
that publicly held corporation and improve the newspapers that they buy,
whereas the news organizations that are getting worse, producing worse
journalism all the time, are those where the owners have made clear that the
bottom line is the most important thing, that even if it's necessary to
compromise what the newsroom does or to greatly reduce newsroom resources to
make more money, so be it, they will do so in order to keep their stock prices

GROSS: Perhaps the most famous of the advertising tie-ins with editorial was
the Staples supplement at the Los Angeles Times. Since so much has been
written about that and said about that already, let me ask you to choose
another example of a place where the wall between editorial and advertising
was penetrated in a way that you think diminished the credibility of a

Mr. KAISER: One that astounded me involves a local television station in
Baltimore, whose call letters I'm going to forget. They're grateful to me for
forgetting them. But this is a station that made a deal with Mercy Hospital
in Baltimore to create segments on women's health in their local news programs
on which segments only staff of Mercy Hospital would appear, and every segment
would include a plug for Mercy Hospital in one way or another. The segments
themselves evidently could be useful to women on health questions--they
actually discussed serious subjects--but they were so loaded in Mercy
Hospital's favor that over time Baltimoreans got the impression that Mercy
Hospital was a famous national institution, famous for its care of women. And
indeed, in some polls that were taken of the Baltimore community, more people
thought they should take a sick woman to Mercy Hospital than to Johns Hopkins
when, in fact, Johns Hopkins hospitals are regularly rated the best hospital
in America, and it's right down the street in Baltimore.

And the news director--or I guess the general manager of the station told me
and has told other reporters, `Hey, there's nothing wrong with this. We don't
turn any editorial control over to Mercy Hospital. These are all honest news
segments. Our reporters ask the questions. There's nothing wrong with this.'
But it's just kind of Orwellian language to me because, in fact, the segment
only exists because Mercy Hospital paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to
the station, and because only Mercy Hospital people are used on the segments,
of course they are loaded.

And apparently in local television this is much more common than we, at least,
understood. We have a long chapter about local television news and its many
problems, but this was certainly the most horrific that we encountered, I

Mr. DOWNIE: I want to emphasize, though, that we're even more concerned than
advertiser influence about simply the level of quality in overall news
coverage. In too many news organizations where the greatest sin that the
owners have committed is to so reduce their editorial resources and to so
emphasize business goals rather than journalistic goals that they simply
aren't covering the news well, and that's a much bigger problem than
advertiser influence, as bad as advertiser influence is.

GROSS: Leonard Downie Jr. is the executive editor of The Washington Post.
Robert G. Kaiser is the paper's associate editor. Their new book is called
"The News About The News: American Journalism in Peril."

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the soundtrack from the film "Gosford Park."
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Soundtrack from "Gosford Park"

"Gosford Park," Robert Altman's upstairs-downstairs murder mystery, is set in
1932 on a British country estate where friends and family have gathered for a
shooting party. Throughout the movie, Altman uses original music and songs
from the 1920s and '30s. Music critic Lloyd Schwartz thinks that the music
plays a crucial role in creating the texture of the film. He has a review of
the "Gosford Park" soundtrack.

(Soundbite of music)


One of the most poignant scenes in "Gosford Park" comes after an indiscreet
outburst by one of the servants, played by Emily Watson, shakes the precarious
stability of the country estate. The lady of the house, Kristin Scott Thomas,
asks a handsome celebrity played by Jeremy Northam to distract the other
guests from the embarrassment by singing. The guests are pleased or relieved
or bored, depending on their level of snobbishness, while the servants gather
furtively in the corridors to listen or even dance, thrilled at their
proximity to a famous star.

Northam's character is Ivor Novello, who is the one real person in this
fictional plot and another element in Altman's complex mosaic of dichotomies:
master or servant, winner or loser, considerate or thoughtless, imaginary or
real. Novello was a matinee idol, a popular British movie and stage
personality who, like Noel Coward, also wrote plays and songs. In one
memorable exchange, the dowager countess, played with delectable snideness by
Maggie Smith, makes a show of her contempt for celebrity.

(Soundbite of "Gosford Park")

Ms. MAGGIE SMITH: (As Countess) Tell me, how much longer are you going to go
on making films?

Mr. JEREMY NORTHAM: (As Ivor Novello) I suppose that rather depends on how
much longer the public want to see me in them.

Ms. SMITH: It must be hard to know when it's time to throw in the towel.
What a pity about that last one of yours. What was it called? "The

Mr. NORTHAM: "The Lodger."

Ms. SMITH: "The Lodger." It must be so disappointing when something just,
you know, flops like that.

Mr. NORTHAM: Yes, it is rather disappointing.

SCHWARTZ: "The Lodger" was actually a film landmark, Alfred Hitchcock's very
first thriller. And Ivor Novello gives a memorable performance as the moody
loner who may or may not be Jack the Ripper. Contrary to Maggie Smith's
insinuation, it was actually a hit.

`How do you manage to put up with these people?' his friend, the Hollywood
producer, played by Bob Balaban, asks Novello. `You forget, I earn my living
by impersonating them,' Novello replies.

In "Gosford Park," Novello's songs express the romantic longings neither the
servants nor the aristocrats can ever realize. Every lyric seems to provide
a wry commentary on the action. Altman gives even Novello's sentimentality an
ironic edge.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NORTHAM: (Singing) Somewhere there's another land, different from this
world below, far more mercifully planned than the cruel place we know.
Innocence and peace are there. All is good that is desired. Faces there are
always fair. Love grows never old nor tired. We shall never find that lovely
land of might have been. I can never be your king nor you can be my queen.
Days may pass and years may pass and seas may lie between. We shall never
find that lovely land of might have been. Some...

SCHWARTZ: After his great World War I anthem, "Keep the Home Fires Burning,"
my favorite Novello song is a droll novelty number called "And Her Mother Came
Too!" In the film, you don't get to hear the punch line because the plot is
taking a sudden turn. But on the soundtrack album, Jeremy Northam sings it
all and in impeccable style.

(Soundbite of "Her Mother Came Too!")

Mr. NORTHAM: (Singing) We lunch at Maxine's, and her mother comes too. How
large a snack seems when mother comes too. And when they're visiting me, we
finish afternoon tea, she loves to sit on my knee and her mother does too. To
golf we started and her mother came too. Three bags I carted when her mother
came too. She fainted just off the tee. My darling whispered to me, `Jack,
dear, at last we are free,' but her mother came too.

SCHWARTZ: The album also gives us a couple of rather strange songs by
soundtrack composer Patrick Doyle with words by Robert Altman, one not used in
the film, the other barely noticeable in Altman's labyrinth of episodes. His
cutting back and forth between the aristocrats and the servants, one room and
another, is like "Gosford Park" itself, the vast country house, a labyrinth of
shadowy corridors.

Mary, Maggie Smith's young maid, winningly played by Kelly Macdonald,
repeatedly gets lost trying to find her room. She's also the character who
unwinds the mystery. In the dim light, those corridors seem like a prison, an
image out of a Piranesi etching, which I think is just Altman's point: Who
isn't trapped by the barriers of money and class?

Patrick Doyle's evocative score dovetails elegantly with Novello's tunes and
subtly reinforces that sense of labyrinth, spinning out its thread of
repeating musical motifs, alluring and ominous, as it follows the characters
and leads us through those winding corridors of house and plot.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. The
"Gosford Park" soundtrack is on Decca Records.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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