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Post Editor Downie: Politics And Wisconsin Avenue Rock 'N' Roll

"Hey, baby...
"You're my rag doll.
"Yeah, yeah. Rag doll."

The words sung by three of the four members of the rock-'n'-roll band could be barely heard above the twanging, pounding and groaning of their own guitars, drum and saxophone.
Competing with the music was the noise of shouted conversation among more than 200 teen-agers crowded into The Keg, in Georgetown, one of two Wisconsin ave. beer-and-dance spots frequented by teen-agers from nearby Maryland and Virginia.

That's the lede on Leonard Downie Jr.'s story in The Washington Post on August 24, 1964. It ran under the headline "Wisconsin Avenue Bars Relieve Drought for Suburbia's Teens." The story described the early rock scene at bars in Tenley Circle and Georgetown--D.C. bars where kids who weren't old enough to drink in Virginia and Maryland could come to imbibe legally.

In his classic fashion, Downie--who would become the editor with the strongest spine in American journalism--maintained the aura of a light feature for only a few paragraphs. The kid reporter couldn't help himself; by the middle of the piece, he was deep into the politics of the drinking age and the pressure being brought to bear on the District to conform its drinking rules to those of the surrounding states.

Today, as Downie announced his retirement from the Post newsroom after 17 years at the helm of the paper and 44 years here as reporter and editor, there will be many tributes to his strength, integrity and gumption. But what the Graham family first loved about this kid reporter, and what stayed closest to Downie's heart throughout his career, was that from his summer internship to his years as leader of one of the nation's top news operations, Len Downie understood deeply that The Washington Post is above all a newspaper for people who live in the Washington area.

Downie opened his retirement announcement to the staff today by recounting his first reporting triumphs, and especially his investigative series on the District's Court of General Sessions, a justice system so thoroughly corrupt and inefficient that Downie's reporting led directly to the abolition of the court and its replacement by the Superior Court that exists today.

Post Company Chairman Don Graham joked today about Downie's legendary obsession with weather stories, but the fact--drummed into any editor or reporter who ever worked down the chain of command from Len--is that nothing quite got this editor juiced like a story that hit home, literally.

Like all editors, Downie had his peculiar likes and dislikes. On the day George Carlin died, it's worth noting that Downie is the anti-Carlin--probably the last American editor to hold the line against naughty words that long ago lost their power to outrage, words such as--well, I'm not allowed to use them. But put it this way: In today's Appreciation of Carlin, Post reporter Paul Farhi was prohibited from using the three-letter word that can be used as a synonym for rear end. That's Downie protecting the notion of a family newspaper.

Downie also couldn't stand anniversary stories (the reflexive pieces news organizations drum up to note something that happened a decade or quarter century ago today) or whining, crybaby farmers looking to get even more subsidies from the government.

But as Graham said, Downie was, aside from a few harmless preferences like those, "ferocious about fairness." "This is an honest man," Graham said, and I've never met anyone--even the politicians who railed against the Post for one story or another--who disagreed.

Downie is also ferocious about the primacy of reporting. Today's emphasis on punditry leaves him cold. The man is a voracious collector of facts. Like all of the best newsmen, he believes that facts will save us and bring us together.

You could write the most gorgeous essay or feature, and Downie would know that he was supposed to admire it. But get some new facts on the table--break some news, go someplace no one else got to, open readers' eyes to some new outrage--and Downie would melt.

During a blizzard in the '80s, I trudged out to a Prince George's County intersection where a school bus had gotten stuck, its full load of children freezing and upset. Metro's tracks froze up, so I had to hitch rides and hoof it to get to the site. I filed a quick, brief story that I thought was little more than a scene, a slice of life on that frigid day. But because no one else made it out to the scene, and because I was able to let readers know what happened to those children, and why they'd been left out in the cold, Downie slapped that baby on the front page. He called me at home that night--I had unwittingly hit the Downie trifecta: A weather story that broke news and held folks accountable.

The work of reporting the news is not terribly complicated. But it requires an editor of unbending spine to send the message to reporters and subeditors that we are here to speak truth to power, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Downie has that spine like nobody else around.

Downie, unlike many editors who toiled beneath him, read every word of every day's paper. He knew the politics of Prince William County as well as those of the presidential campaign. He attended every reception for local leaders, made reporting calls on local stories right up to this year, and made certain that as he built the paper's staff to its peak size, that the Metro section got the biggest share of new slots.

Today, of course, The Post, like all news organizations, is shrinking, struggling to find a new path in a rapidly shifting media landscape. Downie will be sorely missed and his successor will have a tough job to fill. Others may have strong news judgment or a facility with new technologies. Others may be creative managers or gifted editors. But no one else will have Downie's combination of passion for news, ramrod fairness, encyclopedic interest in and knowledge of the Washington area, and understanding that The Post's future is wholly dependent on its ability to tell the people who live here what they need to know about the place they call home.


By Marc Fisher |  June 23, 2008; 5:40 PM ET
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Comments

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Sounds like a great boss. Nice job, Marc.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 6:42 PM

With more suck up stories like this, Marc Fisher is going to get a good raise this year. Come on now, after the beatification of Tim Russert comes the sanctification of Len Downie. Is the WaPo running a newspaper or the Vatican?

Posted by: ed | June 24, 2008 1:58 PM

well, i suppose it might be possible, but i find it very hard to believe that Len Downie "read every word of every day's paper." think about it. if he did, he wouldn't have time to do anything else.

Posted by: JTFloore | June 24, 2008 2:23 PM

(that's a cynical comment from ed about marc fisher praising len downie to get a raise.) despite working in the toy department -- sports -- of the washington post for a few years, i got a taste of downie. he's extremely fair, passionate and inspiring. and there were a couple times that he mentioned a specific line in what i thought was a throw-away story. it certainly seemed to indicate that he read virtually everything. not that the pulitzer prize affirms an editor's impact. but it offers a hint that downie's been the best newspaper editor anywhere during a turbulent time for the industry.


Posted by: Nunyo Demasio | June 25, 2008 10:57 AM

It is possible that by the time these new roads are finsihed, we will not need them. Then what? Who will pay?

Posted by: Gary E. Masters | July 2, 2008 5:43 PM

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