-- by Jeff Carrington
Mr. Leonard Downie, Executive Editor
Mr. Michael Getler, Ombudsman
The Washington Post
On October 27, 2004 Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. penned an op-ed entitled, “A Strict Separation”. Therein Mr. Downie, the self-described “ultimate gatekeeper” (Post, “Live Online” 10/6/04) for everything printed in the newspaper, reassures readers that there is what amounts to a Chinese wall between the editorial and news reporting departments at the Post.
Mr. Downie’s op-ed has a pedantic, just-for-the-record, ‘let’s get this straight’ flavor. The purpose for the article is to stipulate that the home-stretch flurry of political endorsements by the Post has nothing whatever to do with the paper’s news coverage, which is and always will be, impartial. Here’s an illustrative passage:
“Last Sunday, under the headline, "Kerry for President," The Post's editorial page endorsed the ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards.
This could lead some readers to conclude that candidates endorsed by The Post's editorial page might be given more favorable coverage in the news pages. This is not so.”
Not to mince words, but (staying with the syntax of the “to conclude” sentence) it is unlikely at this very late date. . .now that the Post has to everyone’s amazement come out of the closet, editorially speaking, for John Kerry. . . that such a lightning bolt of reader comprehension will suddenly bridge the moat between Mr. Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post editorial department, and Mr. Downie’s castle keep of vestal virgins in the news brigade. Actually many of us readers believe the news virgins have been missing bed checks for a long time now.
The pieties keep coming hard and fast. Talking further about what he says the insiders at the Post “irreverently” refer to as the “church and state” separation as between editorial and news departments:
“This separation can be difficult for readers to understand. But we take it very seriously. We are determined to keep our coverage of the news -- especially an election campaign -- fair, unbiased and nonpartisan.”
As it pertains to the presidential campaign coverage by the Post, this Downie pronouncement is—no other way to put it—absurd to those of us who have watched the Post closely during this election cycle. Can he actually mean it? One moment you suspect it’s a very deliberate untruth, and the next you find yourself wondering how such an intelligent man ever became so deluded that he could make this statement and think it was true. Downie is marginally correct about one thing, the “difficult to understand” part. To be fully correct the word impossible’ should be substituted. And then while you’re at it, substitute “believe” for “understand”.
Just as we are on the ropes with our jaw hanging, Downie delivers the crushing right hand in his concluding paragraph:
“The most common bias I find in our profession is the love of a good story, which the 2004 campaign has certainly been. The mission of our coverage of the campaign, more deeply felt by us than many readers may realize, has been to give voters as much information as possible about candidates, issues and the campaign so that they can decide the election's outcome.”
It’s an amazing glimpse into the psyche of the Post’s skipper, and by one theory a confirming one. In particular, the “most common bias” and “more deeply felt by us than many readers may realize” words he chooses, amount to an indirect, metaspeak acknowledgment that there, uh, may have been, or that is someone could maybe say that there was. . .a problem at the Post in the matter of Bush v. Kerry campaign coverage. As far as we know, no baying pack of critics has (yet) cornered the Washington Post a la CBS in the Dan Rather debacle, or like the Jayson Blair/New York Times scandal. So why would Downie gush what amounts to a generally unsolicited and quite remarkable alibi in such a high profile piece at this precise time?
As James Carville might put it with his customary delicacy: it’s the record, stupid. Look no further for your answer.
The moving finger writes. . . . nor all your piety nor wit, shall have it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it. Over the past year the Washington Post has writ an indelible scroll containing an unrelenting thread of bias and agenda in its coverage of the Bush and Kerry campaigns.
The trouble with trying to face down a big time media sinner like the Post is, none of them ever seem to find the integrity to genuinely accept their own record. There is no such thing as an unqualifiedly honest confession. Simply look at the gruel of an apology offered by CBS in the Dan Rather/forged memos case. Barely four weeks later 60 Minutes was apparently on the verge of falling off the wagon yet again, with a seismic bang, in the “missing explosives” fairy tale. The New York Times took the point and stepped into the punji pit first, an ironic salvation for 60 Minutes seeing it was they who urgently recruited the Times to run with this precious Bushkiller football when they couldn’t make their Wednesday TV deadline.
Even when the record is black and white, it has become common practice to squirm, growl, preach, dodge and obfuscate endlessly so that even if your shoulders are exposed to the mat, you are never able to be pinned. God forbid pinned. A comparison of the Bush Air National Guard meetings ‘story’ with the Post coverage of Kerry’s various Vietnam conundrums, is just that: black and white. All you need is simple arithmetic, count the words, count the stories, look at the dates, add it all up. Big difference, huge difference, between Column A and Column B. No plausible explanation to rebut the obvious conclusion is even bothered with. OK, you caught us, so what. And then Mr. Downie makes the statements that he does. Time and again. Apparently still sleeps well, has no trouble getting his cornflakes down in the morning. Remarkable. Chilling, even.
Given the mens rea of executives like Leonard Downie, Jr. how can we hope to succeed in making the Post accountable for their chronic and egregious sins of omission and distortion in the Kerry/Vietnam story in particular? For it is this one area that supersedes all others in terms of real national gravity.
By finally and firmly pinning Mr. Downie’s shoulders to the mat so that not even a Russian judge could miss it.
On May 4, 2004 an episode unprecedented in the history of modern American politics took place. 240 distinguished Navy Vietnam veterans, among whom were virtually his entire chain of command, delivered a stunningly explicit bill of grievance in a formal letter to presidential candidate John Kerry. The group, which had formed as a special political action committee, was broad-spectrum politically. Their single common denominator was aptly reflected in the name of the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Their mission was set forth distinctly in their letter:
“It is vital that the American public have as much information as possible about candidates for President of the United States. In various ways, you have rightly called upon President Bush to be fully accountable and to provide full disclosure. In the same spirit, now that you are the presumptive nominee of your Party, we believe it is incumbent upon you to make your total military record open to the American people.
Specifically, we the undersigned formally request that you authorize the Department of the Navy to independently release your military records (through your execution of Standard Form 180), complete and unaltered, including your military medical records. Further, we call upon you to correct the misconceptions your campaign seeks to create as to your conduct while in Vietnam. Permit the American public the opportunity to assess your military performance upon the record, and not upon campaign rhetoric.”
Any junior high school civics student could comprehend that this was a national event of potentially enormous significance. The Washington Post could not.
Over the next 100 days, the story of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raged throughout the non-mainstream media. Leonard Downie Jr. and the Post resisted all temptations to afford the story, with its beyond-obvious bona fides and huge implications, any semblance of coverage. Even ignored direct invitations by the Swift veterans to interview them. 100 days, almost the length of John Kerry’s glory-imbued Tour of Duty in Vietnam. The Washington Post, the respected and relied-upon institution that had so lavishly traded over the last 32 years on its Watergate reputation as the grand duchess of political newshounds and guardians of the sacred flame of integrity in American government, tanked. No credulous explanation for that forfeiture of journalistic responsibility exists. Except one. As totally obvious as it is—ask yourself, could it be any clearer?—no admission by the Post is or will be forthcoming it seems. Instead we get the galling “love for a good story” characterization of what most people of conscience easily recognize as pure and simple systematic pro-Kerry prejudice by the Washington Post.
That behavior may not be entirely novel, but what vaults this case far beyond any other, is the utter severity of the issues that were determinedly, repeatedly quashed by the Post. A disturbingly ambitious man carefully falsifies his record to grab a ticker-tape train to political renown and success, all the way to the threshold of the highest office in the land. Just when all is within his grasp, spoilers with magnificent credentials—none better anywhere—come forward to expose the real truth. Their patently respectable dissertation of proof actually becomes a number-one national bestseller. An example for the ages. The Post cannot find the integrity to grant these men the right of a thoughtful audience. They are dismissed with a tinge of scorn as partisans carrying a grudge and using it as a chisel to damage the Post’s candidate. 100 days of solitude.
Count one—two—three, referee. Pinned.
That’s the match, Mr. Downie, although you don’t recognize it yet, and maybe won’t for quite a while. But the credibility of the Washington Post has taken a Swift Boat torpedo right in the boilers. Over time, regardless of what does occur on November 2, the story of the Post and the Swiftees will be researched and compiled and sooner or later published. It will make a compelling read. It may even enjoy the success of Unfit for Command, who knows. It may even be researched and authored and promoted by many of the same people, who knows. It may become required reading in journalism schools and circles, eclipsing All The President’s Men as the ruler by which the journalistic ethics of the Washington Post as national political watchdog will be measured and critiqued. . .
And the tribute of Watergate will move from your journalistic epigraph, to your epitaph.
Requiescat in fracta.
This article was posted at SwiftVets.com.