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Nicole Carroll, editor and vice president/news for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com, interviews ASU Cronkite professor Len Downie about his years at the Washington Post. Nate Kelly/azcentral.com

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. 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. 

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Downie worked for Ben Bradlee, then 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 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 ahold 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 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 to 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 this 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 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 push back 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.

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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 recreated 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?

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Were there some things the movie got wrong?

Not wrong. … Obviously 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 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.

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Meryl Streep stars as ‘Washington Post’ publisher Kay Graham and Tom Hanks is editor Ben Bradlee in ‘The Post,’ director Steven Spielberg’s drama about the Pentagon Papers.
Fox

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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 is editor and vice president/news for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. She was recently named the National Press Foundation Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year. Reach her at Nicole.Carroll@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter: @Nicole _Carroll.

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